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Stephen Wilson '74: Cultivating growth in the fertilizer business

By Sandra Guy

In 2008, the recession swept the world like a tsunami, knocking down the profits of virtually every business in its path. No company, it seemed, was spared the impact of the global economic meltdown.

None, that is, except CF Industries Holdings, Inc. In 2008, the Deerfield, Ill.-based fertilizer producer announced that its profits had reached an all-time high of $685 million, up 84 percent from the previous year. This year, BusinessWeek magazine recognized the company as No. 2 among the 50 best performers in Standard & Poor's 500, outpacing companies such as Apple, Amazon.com, Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

In large part, that's thanks to Stephen Wilson '74, the chairman, president and CEO of CF Industries Holdings. Wilson joined the company in January 1991 as senior vice president and chief financial officer. He was promoted to president and CEO in 2003 and became chairman in 2005.

Wilson has transformed CF Industries Holdings from a struggling co-operative for Midwestern farmers into the leading maker and distributor of nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers.  Along with taking the company public, he has strengthened its board of directors and recruited top people for his management team, including two Kellogg alumni — Anthony J. Nocchiero '75, senior vice president and CFO, and W. Anthony Will '93, vice president of manufacturing and distribution.

"We've got a great company with a terrific track record," says Wilson. "In the space of three and a half years, we've gone from being an $850 million market capitalization company to a $9 billion market capitalization company at the market peak last summer." Today, CF Industries Holdings represents $3.9 billion in market capitalization.

After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in sociology in 1970, Wilson served two years in the U.S. Army, which stationed him in Germany during the Vietnam War. Following his service, he enrolled at Kellogg, where he was influenced by professors such as Al Rappaport, who taught Wilson about corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions; the late Lawrence Revsine, who Wilson said made accounting interesting, and former Dean Donald P. Jacobs, who Wilson says brought "real-world perspective to the role of banks and how they were regulated."

During the summer between his first and second years of business school, he accepted an internship in the finance department at Inland Steel Co. in Chicago. Wilson made such an impression on Inland's executives that they offered him a job post-graduation.

Wilson remained at Inland for the next 17 years, holding several roles in finance and corporate planning and overseeing the financing of the company's joint venture with Nippon Steel in the mid-1980s. The venture resulted in a company called I/N Tek, which built a half-billion-dollar continuous cold rolling mill in Indiana. Wilson also spent two and a half years at Inland subsidiary Joseph T. Ryerson & Son, Inc., where he served as vice president of finance and information systems.

Much of Wilson's career success, he says, stems from his Kellogg education. The school gave him "a great technical background, broad exposure to the disciplines and a terrific grounding in the technical aspects of financial analysis," he says. He also learned about the importance of teamwork, a skill that's proved invaluable when making tough career decisions — particularly now, as he oversees a planned acquisition at CF Industries Holdings and deals with an unplanned takeover attempt. 

"It's very important in business that it be about 'we,'" he says, "that if we succeed as a team, the individuals succeed."

 

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