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The Cereal King: How W.K. Kellogg Got His Start

If it were not for the ingenuity of W.K. Kellogg, the world today might never know flaked cereal. A master marketer and inventor, Kellogg revolutionized the breakfast food industry when he decided to start his own company and sell toasted corn flakes back in 1906. Today, that same company has grown to include almost 26,000 employees and earns over $11.5 billion in revenue.

Willie Keith Kellogg was born on April 7, 1860 in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was the seventh son of Ann Janette and John Preston Kellogg, a struggling entrepreneur himself, who was trying to support his family by building a broom-manufacturing business. By the time the young Kellogg was 13 years old he had shortened his name to Will and had begun working for his father. He would regularly visit local grocery stores and use his natural salesmanship to sell his father’s brooms. “As a boy, I never learned to play,” he recalled. Eventually, Kellogg would drop out of school to work in the broom business full time.

Kellogg consumed himself with brooms until 1880, when he left the business to go work with his older brother, Dr. J. H. Kellogg, at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a local health resort. There, Kellogg took on whatever tasks were required of him, from accountant to handyman. He would run his brother’s book subscription service, as well as manage the Sanitas Food Company. Sanitas arose out of his brother’s attempts to find healthy and nutritious food to serve his guests. He had built a test kitchen at the sanitarium to experiment with a host of new foods.

Despite having a steady job, Kellogg was unsatisfied with his life. He had gotten married, had four children, and was finding it difficult to support them on his meager salary. The long hours he was working were also taking their toll on him. In an 1884 journal entry, he wrote: “I feel kind of blue. Am afraid that I will always be a poor man the way things look now.”

Kellogg began spending more and more time in the Sanitas test kitchen. Together with his brother, they began playing with ingredients to create different breakfast products. Finally, Kellogg stumbled upon one that he thought had much promise: toasted wheat flakes. While his brother wanted the flakes to be crushed, Kellogg insisted that they had more potential if served whole.

Almost immediately, Kellogg became convinced of the opportunity behind the flakes. He saw them as playing a key role in the future growth of cereals and other health foods, an industry Kellogg thought had much potential.

Through Sanitas, Kellogg and his brother began selling the flakes, relying little on advertising and largely on direct mail campaigns. It saw modest success in its early stages, but Kellogg wanted to expand the business. An increasing number of cereal companies were popping up in Battle Creek and Kellogg wanted to stay ahead of the game.

Kellogg’s brother, however, resisted the idea. He was happy with the way things were going. With that, Kellogg decided it was time to venture off on his own.

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