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Will Kellogg: Do What You Do Best

Will Keith Kellogg, co-founder of Kellogg’s, was once known as the Cornflake King. Before Kellogg’s introduced flake cereals to the North American market, the only way to get grains at breakfast was for the family cook to get up to make gruel, typically at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning so the porridge would be ready for breakfast at sunup.

Flaked, dry cereals were an incredibly popular innovation that made the Kelloggs and even their competitors rich. Will Kellogg’s contribution to his company’s success could be summed up in a single sentence:

Do what you do best.

Early life

Will Keith Kellogg was born in April of 1860 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg’s father was a staunch Seventh Day Adventist who believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent and therefore education was unimportant.

The younger Kellogg dropped out of elementary school and became his father’s youngest traveling salesman at the age of 14. By the age of 19, Will Kellogg was managing a broom factory nearly 1,000 miles away in Dallas, Texas.

Kellogg had an older brother, John Harvey Kellogg, who had taken a very different path. John Harvey Kellogg achieved worldwide fame as a doctor, author, and inventor managing the Battle Creek Sanitarium back in Michigan. It was this Kellogg brother whose life was chronicled in the 1990’s film The Road to Wellville.

The older Kellogg brother was obsessed with bowel movement. All health problems, John Harvey Kellogg believed, could be traced to constipation or autoerotic stimulation. To rejuvenate health, he prescribed fiber-rich cereals and yogurt enemas, daily, and complete avoidance of masturbation.

The older Kellogg brother made a number of grandiose statements about his understanding of the nature of God, in part through his studies of the human bowel, and was directed to close his sanitarium or leave the Seventh Day Adventist church in 1902. Dr. Kellogg chose to leave the church.

Invention of cornflakes

In the 1880, Will Kellogg had returned to Battle Creek and taken a job at the sanitarium. He set about the task of making high-fiber meat substitutes for the patients. He managed to duplicate a product known as shredded wheat, but patients complained that it tasted like little bales of hay. Will then tried making flaked wheat cereal, but the product came out mushy. Will left the sanitarium for a few days to ponder what to do next.

When Will returned to the kitchen, the batter had molded. In disgust, he turned the crank to clean out the machine and out came perfect flakes. Will discovered that the process also worked for rice, oats, and corn.

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Sibling rivalries

Cornflakes were an immediate success at the sanitarium, and John Kellogg took all the credit. He told his admiring patients that the idea for the process had come to him in a dream. Will, the younger brother, recognized the commercial value of the process and wanted to keep it secret, but John, the flamboyant world-renowned physician, would show it to anyone who wanted to watch.

One of the patients of the sanitarium was a Texas investor named C. W. Post, who copied the Kellogg brother’s invention and used it to start the Post Cereal Company.

When Post earned $1 million from his “Postum” and “Grape Nuts,” Will begged John to let him commercialize the process, but John refused.

Will then found a partner and started the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, making one critical adjustment in the recipe: to make the cereal taste better, he added sugar. John strenuously objected, but Will didn’t care. The younger Kellogg brother had earned his first million dollars by 1910, and Kellogg cereals were born.

Will and John spent years in court battling over the question of which brother had the right to use the Kellogg name. The dispute finally reaching the Michigan Supreme Court, when Will won the right to use his family name on his sugar-sweetened cereals, and the older Kellogg moved to Florida, where he sank into dementia and died in obscurity.

John wrote a letter apologizing to Will shortly before his death, but Will’s assistants kept the letter hidden from him for 10 years.

Will Kellog’s Legacy

In the 1920’s, Kellogg’s became one of the largest companies in the United States. In the 1930’s, the company expanded its influence by instituting four day a week, six hours a day work schedule to make more jobs available to more families. Will left 60% of his estate to the Kellogg Foundation, which retains one of the largest endowments of all charitable institutions in North America.

What is the lesson of the Kellogg brothers for modern marketers? Will Kellog’s refusal to compromise left him free to pursue what he did best. Though the brothers’ failure to reconcile in person was tragic, their differences became their individual strengths.