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The company can trace its history to the Minneapolis Milling Company, incorporated in 1856. The company was founded by Illinois Congressman Robert Smith, who leased power rights to mills operating along the west side of Saint Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cadwallader C. Washburn acquired the company shortly after its founding and hired his brother William D. Washburn to assist in the company's development. In 1866 the Washburns got into the business themselves, building the Washburn "B" Mill at the falls. At the time, the building was considered to be so large and output so vast that it could not possibly sustain itself. However, the company succeeded, and in 1874 he built the even bigger Washburn "A" Mill.
In 1877, the mill entered a partnership with John Crosby to form the Washburn-Crosby Company, producing Winter Wheat Flour. That same year Washburn sent William Hood Dunwoody to England to open the market for spring wheat. Dunwoody was successful and became a silent partner.
In 1878, the "A" mill was destroyed in a flour dust explosion along with five nearby buildings. The ensuing fire led to the death of 18 workers.
Construction of a new mill began immediately. Not only was the new mill safer but it also was able to produce a higher quality flour after the old grinding stones were replaced with automatic steel rollers, the first ever used.
In 1880, Washburn-Crosby flour brands won gold, silver and bronze medals at the Millers' International Exhibition in Cincinnati, causing them to launch the Gold Medal flour brand.
In 1924, the company acquired a failing Twin Cities radio station, WLAG, renaming it WCCO (from Washburn-Crosby Company).
General Mills itself was created in June 1928 when Washburn-Crosby President James Ford Bell merged Washburn-Crosby and 28 other mills.
In 1928, General Mills acquired the Wichita Mill and Elevator Company of the industrialist Frank Kell of Wichita Falls, Texas. With the sale, Kell acquired cash plus stock in the corporation.
Postcard image of the Gold Medal Flour factory in Minneapolis around 1900
The newly merged company paid a dividend in 1928, and has continued the dividend uninterrupted since then-one of only a few companies to pay a dividend every year since then.
Merchandising and television sponsorships
Beginning in 1929, General Mills products contained box top coupons, known as Betty Crocker coupons, with varying point values, which were redeemable for discounts on a variety of housewares products featured in the widely distributed Betty Crocker catalog. The coupons and the catalog were discontinued by the company in 2006. A similar program, Box Tops for Education, in which coupon icons clipped off various General Mills products can be redeemed by schools for cash, started in 1996 and is still active.
General Mills became the sponsor of the popular radio show The Lone Ranger in 1941. The show was then brought to television, and, after 20 years, their sponsorship came to an end in 1961.
The General Mills Electronics division developed the DSV Alvin submersible, which is notable for being used in investigating the wreck of Titanic among other deep-sea exploration missions.
Diversification: toys and restaurants
The first venture General Mills took into the toy industry was in 1965. The company bought Rainbow Crafts, which was the manufacturer of Play-Doh. General Mills' purchase of the company was substantial because it brought production costs down and tripled the revenue.
In 1970, General Mills acquired a five-unit restaurant company called Red Lobster and expanded it nationwide. Soon, a division of General Mills titled General Mills Restaurants developed to take charge of the Red Lobster chain. In 1980, General Mills acquired the California-based Good Earth health food restaurant chain. The company eventually converted the restaurants into other chain restaurants they were operating, such as Red Lobster. In 1982, General Mills Restaurants founded a new Italian-themed restaurant chain called Olive Garden. Another themed restaurant, China Coast, was added before the entire group was spun off to General Mills shareholders in 1995 as Darden Restaurants.
During the same decade, General Mills ventured further, starting the General Mills Specialty Retail Group. They acquired two clothing and apparel companies, Talbots and Eddie Bauer. The acquisition was short-lived. Talbots was purchased by a Japanese company, then known as JUSCO, and the Spiegel company purchased Bauer. Spiegel later declared bankruptcy, yet Bauer still remains, albeit in a smaller presence in the United States today.
From 1976 to 1985, General Mills went to court as the parent company of Parker Brothers, which held the rights on the brand name and gaming idea of the board game Monopoly, claiming that the so-called Anti-Monopoly game of an economics professor infringed their trademark. The dispute extended up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against them, saying that while they have exclusive rights to the game Monopoly, they can not prevent others from using the word "monopoly" in the name of a game.
In 1985, General Mills' toy division was separated from its parent as Kenner Parker Toys, Inc. There were many potential acquirers of the business but it was floated on the stock exchange with General Mills' shareholders getting equivalent shares in Kenner Parker. This was more tax efficient for General Mills.
In 1990, a joint venture with Nestlé S.A. called Cereal Partners was formed which markets cereals (including many existing General Mills cereal brands) outside the US and Canada under the Nestlé name.
Since 2004, General Mills has been producing more products targeted to the growing ranks of health-conscious consumers. The company has chosen to switch its entire breakfast cereal line to whole grain. The company also started manufacturing their child-targeted cereals with less sugar. General Mills has reduced the level of sugar in all cereals advertised to children to 11 grams per serving. The company's recent marketing to children included the advergameMillsberry, a virtual city that included games featuring General Mills products. The site launched in August 2004 and ran through December 2010. The site allowed you to create an avatar, build a house, and play various games to earn money. You could spend this money in the main town, and use it to purchase things like General Mills cereals or furniture for your home.
In April 2011, General Mills announced that it will switch all 1 million eggs it uses each year to cage-free.
General Mills was ranked #181 on the 2012 Fortune 500 list of America's largest corporations, 161 in 2015 and was the third-largest food consumer products company in the United States. During June 2012, the company's vice-president for diversity stated that General Mills opposes a Minnesota amendment banning gay marriage, stating that the company values "inclusion". The company received positive feedback for its stand which might attract people to its global workforce.
The company announced in September 2014 that it would acquire organic food producer Annie's Inc. for a fee of around $820 million, as part of its strategy to expand in the US natural foods market. In October 2014, General Mills announced plans to cut 700 to 800 jobs, mostly in U.S., in corporate restructuring planned to be completed by the end of 2015.
In 2015, citing climate change, General Mills promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent over 10 years. In December 2016, the company announced it would be restructuring, splitting into four business groups based on global region, and cutting as many as 600 jobs.
In February 2018, the company entered into the pet products industry, paying $8 billion to buy Blue Buffalo Pet Products, Inc. As of 2018, the company ranked 182nd on the Fortune 500 list of the largest United States corporations by revenue.
1930s: General Mills engineer, Thomas R. James, creates the puffing gun, which inflates or distorts cereal pieces into puffed up shapes. This new technology was used in 1937 to create Kix cereal and in 1941 to create Cheerioats (known today as Cheerios).
1939: General Mills engineer Helmer Anderson creates the Anderson sealer. This new device allowed for bags of flour to be sealed with glue instead of just being tied with a string.
1956: General Mills creates the tear-strip for easily opening packages.
As of April 2010[update], the company's management included:
Jeffrey J. Rotsch – Executive Vice President, Worldwide Sales and Channel Development
Christina L. Shea – Senior Vice President, External Relations; President, General Mills Community Action and Foundation
Change to legal terms
In April 2014, the company announced that it had changed its legal terms on its website to introduce an arbitration clause requiring all disputes with General Mills to be resolved in small claims court or arbitration and not as a participant in a class action. The change was made shortly after a judge's March 26, 2014, denial of a motion to dismiss a class action regarding the marketing of the company's Nature Valley brand products. Users would be deemed to accept the terms by interacting with General Mills on its website in various ways, such as downloading coupons, subscribing to newsletters, or participating in Internet forums hosted on the website.The New York Times stated that the agreement could be interpreted to additionally construe purchasing General Mills products at a grocery store or liking the company's Facebook page as assent to the terms; General Mills disclaimed that interpretation, calling it a "mischaracterization". The change in terms resulted in a massive backlash of protests via consumer groups and social media, and General Mills reverted the terms back to the original content after only a few days.
Box Tops for Education is a program that was introduced by General Mills in 1996 to provide money for K-12 education. When the program started, the top right corner of the top label of the box contained a small coupon (known as a box top) that was able to be clipped off the box and sent to a child's school. Every box top that was sent would allow the school to pay for supplies, which would in turn help the school's students. In July 2019, Box Tops for Education introduced a mobile app where a store receipt would have to be scanned within two weeks of purchase in order for the money to be collected; the physical box tops themselves are expected to be phased out by December 2019.
As of 25 May 2008[update], 79 facilities for the production of a wide variety of food products were in operation. Of these facilities, 49 are located in the US, 12 in the Asia/Pacific region (8 of which are leased), 5 in Canada (2 of which are leased), 7 in Europe (3 of which are leased), 5 in Latin America and Mexico, and one in South Africa.
The company also has a Global Business Solutions (GBS) division in Mumbai, India. Its prominent brand in India is Pillsbury although it has opened a premium ice cream parlour of Häagen-Dazs ice cream in Delhi and Mumbai. In 2016 General Mills moved its UK Jus-Rol operations to Greece.