Nourishing the World: Spending an Evening with Dan Dye, CEO of Ardent Mills
As we walked into the kitchen, our senses came alive: the smell of freshly baked bread, the shine of stainless steel appliances, the smile of Chef Daniel Marciani, and the sight of risotto, chocolate quinoa desserts and caramelized spread. We felt like we had just walked into Babette’s Feast.
The food was the unexpected capstone of an evening the 5280 Fellows spent with Dan Dye, CEO of Ardent Mills, the largest flour producer in the country. Ardent Mills, a new company that was spun off from ConAgra, CHS, and Cargill just over two and a half years ago, has 42 production facilities in the US, over 2,000 employees, and – get this – serves an estimated 100 million per day with their products. Chances are, if you ate any kind of bread product today, you are being nourished by Ardent Mills.
As we gathered around the conference room to hear Dan’s story, he candidly shared about life as the leader of a $4-billion-year company: the advent of his career at Cargill, the transition to leadership over a team of commodities traders in Winnipeg, and the values he uses as guideposts for everything he does.
Values, he said, are at the core of his leadership. Trust. Serving. Simplicity. Safety. For Dye, they’re more than words: they form the heart of the company he leads – and while not explicitly or exclusively Christian, each of them are endowed with deep spiritual value. “Though I don’t always say to people, ‘These are biblical values,’ to me each value is Biblically rooted, and the Bible informs me on how to lead a company, and how I can help best serve both customers and employees,” said Dye.
Dye spoke about discerning his calling and new job opportunities alongside his wife, Alea; how to build a strong leadership team; the challenges of work-life choices as he took different roles throughout his career. He shared about being a strong emotional presence in times of crisis, especially during a time early in his career when, tragically, two employees died during an accident. “It was the hardest time of my career – and one of the hardest times of my life. The value of safety isn’t just a word on the wall – I believe in it with every fiber of my being.”
Developing a strong, values-based culture is central to Dye’s leadership. He believes values allow them to better serve their customers, but they also create a work-environment that blesses his employees. The five principles of leadership at Ardent Mills are:
- Live Our Values: Trust, Serving, Simplicity, Serving
- Others Focused vs. Self-Focused
- Clear the Noise
- Relentlessly Curious
- We Will Win – The Right Way
The final value used to be just “We Will Win,” believing that profit is inherently good as it creates the opportunity to serve more customers and hire more employees. But he added “The Right Way” after observing the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015, in which the German automaker intentionally mislead environmental authorities to pass emissions standards. To Dye, doing business “the right way” means profit must be made ethically, upholding the highest standards of integrity.
Banks Benitez, 5280 Fellow and Vice President of Global Expansion at the Unreasonable Institute, shared a brief note with me after the Community & Culture gathering:
“I just wanted to drop you a brief note thanking you for tonight. It broadened my perspective, humanized a big industry that I know nothing about, connected us to a leader who is putting Christ in that center circle, and sparked many ideas for me in my own career and role. One thing that Dan mentioned, which I really liked, was about getting rid of the noise and bringing clarity to people. I know that’s something I struggle with in my role with our team…It was such an amazing night and I kept thinking, “this is way beyond what I expected from the fellowship.”
Dye also shared about the centrality of his faith to his work. “I remember when I was a kid, my dad would take me aside before a basketball game, and give me some clear advice: keep your cool, do your best, honor God. I’ve always kept that advice close to my heart.” Through both his father and early career mentors at Cargill, who encouraged him to keep Christ at the center of his life, role models profoundly impacted Dye’s career trajectory.
The Ardent Mills vision of “Nourishing What’s Next” has special meaning for Dye. Bread is a central metaphor in the Scriptures: Jesus is the bread of life; the kingdom of God is like yeast that works its way through dough; Jesus commands his followers to remember his death through drinking of wine and eating bread.
As Dan Dye leads a company that is nourishing the world – quite literally – he also strives to nourish the spirits of the customers, employees and communities Ardent Mills serves each day.
This article first appeared on the Theology of Business Blog at denverinstitute.org.