Will Keith Kellogg The Cornflake King
Will Keith Kellogg
Founder of Kellogg Co.
When Will Keith and John Harvey Kellogg invented the first flaked cereal in 1894, they turned the American diet on its ear. Before long, the Kellogg name was gracing breakfast tables across the country. But behind the name lies a fascinating story of two very different brothers-one an eccentric doctor, the other a sober businessman-whose sibling rivalry ranks up there with that of Cain and Abel.
Will Keith Kellogg was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, in April 1860. His father, John Kellogg, a successful broom maker and staunch Seventh Day Adventist, believed Christ's Second Coming was imminent and therefore placed little emphasis on education. So as soon as young Will Keith was old enough, he was put to work in his father's factory. Will Keith discovered that he had a natural knack for business, and by age 14, he was the company's youngest traveling salesman. Five years later, he was managing a broom factory in Dallas.
John Harvey Kellogg took a very different path. A flamboyant physician, author and inventor, Dr. Kellogg had gained world renown as head of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Offering radical treatments that promised to revitalize the body, mind and spirit, the San (short for Sanitarium) had become a Mecca for those looking to improve their health. As patronage at the San increased, the good doctor decided he needed someone to keep the books and help him run the place. For this he turned to his younger brother, Will Keith, who had returned to Michigan in 1880. In addition to his business knowledge, there was another reason John chose Will Keith-he knew that the shy young man posed no threat to his control of the San.
At the core of Dr. Kellogg's "biologic living" program was a firm belief in vegetarianism. But he had difficulty convincing his patients to give up meat. So John established an experimental kitchen and put Will Keith to work inventing a palatable substitute for meat made from wheat. For years, John had been trying to duplicate a cereal product made in Denver called Shredded Wheat. Unfortunately, Shredded Wheat didn't go over very well with the San's visitors. Most claimed it tasted like "bailed hay."
Will Keith searched for a way to turn wheat into something more tasty, and he hit upon the idea of creating a wheat flake. However, the mushy wheat batter simply refused to cooperate. After several unsuccessful attempts, Will Keith went home to ponder the problem. When he returned to the lab several days later, he found that the batter had molded. In disgust, he gave the crank of the "flaking machine" a turn-and to his surprise, out came perfect flakes. Apparently the mold had given the batter the "rise" it needed to flake.
Will Keith quickly discovered that the process worked just as well with oats, rice and corn. But although it was Will Keith who had stumbled upon the answer, it was John who took all the credit, claiming the idea had come to him in a dream. To Will Keith's frustration, John insisted that the new cereal be sold only to the San's patients. Where Will Keith saw dollar signs, John only saw good health. The two brothers hadn't been very close to begin with, and now their differences began to open a chasm between them.
In 1891, a would-be entrepreneur named Charles W. Post arrived at the San for treatment of a severe case of dyspepsia (a digestive system disorder). Post saw a potential gold mine in the products being created in the San's experimental kitchens, and became particularly fascinated with the Kelloggs' attempts to create a coffee substitute made from cereal. When alerted to Post's curiosity, John replied, "Let him see everything we're doing. I shall be delighted if he makes a cereal coffee."
Post did just that, and in 1895, he began marketing Postum, a cereal coffee made from grain and-like Kellogg's. Postum was a great success, especially in the winter. But Post needed a product to sell in the summer, so he began marketing a cereal called Grape Nuts. By 1901, Post had made his first million.
Post's success rankled Will Keith, who hated the idea of the upstart Texan getting rich on the San's creation. After several unsuccessful attempts to get his brother to sell the San's cornflakes commercially, Will Keith decided to strike out on his own. Looking for a way to make the cornflakes taste better, he added malt flavoring to the recipe. When Dr. Kellogg-who promoted a sugar-free diet-found out, he was furious. But Will Keith didn't care. He was sure he'd found the formula for his success, and in 1906, he separated from his brother and formed The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co. The business acumen Will Keith had displayed in his youth re-emerged, and by 1910 his was a million-dollar business.
Will Keith's success infuriated John, who resented the commercialization of "his" creation and name. In retaliation, Dr. Kellogg changed the name of his company to Kellogg Food Co. In turn, Will Keith changed his company to Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Co., and to differentiate his flakes from those of his brother and other competitors, he added his signature to every box along with the slogan, "Beware of imitations. None genuine without this signature." It marked the beginning of what would become a decade-long court battle over who owned the Kellogg name.
In 1910, Will Keith sued John. Then in 1916, John sued Will Keith. Finally, the "battle of bran," as it was known, reached the Michigan Supreme Court, which granted the younger brother the right to sell cereal under the Kellogg name. Defeated, John moved to Florida and rapidly faded into obscurity.
Finally emerging from his brother's shadow, Will Keith quickly became a dominant figure in American business. A true marketing genius, he began giving away free samples of his cereal, which caused sales to explode. By the 1920s, Kellogg Co. led the pack in what had become a multimillion-dollar industry.
Throughout the years of Will Keith's growing success, he had not seen or spoken to his older brother. But when he heard reports of John's increasingly eccentric behavior, he traveled to Florida to check on his brother's condition. Will Keith was appalled to find that his brother was quickly losing touch with reality. John Harvey Kellogg died a year later, in 1943, at the age of 91. Before his death, he sent Will Keith a letter of reconciliation in which he apologized for his behavior. But Will Keith never saw it. He had become almost completely blind, and his protective staff never informed him of the letter. On his own deathbed in 1951, Will Keith was finally told of the letter. Struck that he had never known about his brother's change of heart, he sat up in bed and cried, "My goodness, why didn't someone tell me before this?"
The Kellogg brothers' inability to collaborate drove them apart, but ironically, that's what allowed each to do what he did best. Today, the company that Will Keith Kellogg started nearly a century ago reigns as the No. 1 maker of ready-to-eat cereals.
Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan and.Kellogg?
Flaked cereal isn't the only product invented by Will Keith and John Harvey Kellogg that regularly adorns kitchen tables across America. Included in the many different foods the Kelloggs' experimental kitchen developed was a vegetarian "health" food called Nut Butter-a thick spread made from peanuts. Although the Kelloggs registered the first patent for it, they apparently never enforced it.
The Bashful Benefactor
Although he was never known as the warmest of men, over the years Will Keith Kellogg quietly established a reputation as a giver to local charities, and he would often look for ways to help people in need. During the Depression, he ran his factory on four six-hour work shifts to create more jobs.
Will Keith also showed a great concern for children, especially rural children. In 1930, he set up the Child Welfare Foundation (CWF) to help the vast number of children living in poverty. Dedicated to improving the health and education of children across the country, the CWF was eventually renamed the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Upon his death, Will Keith willed most of his 60 percent interest in Kellogg Co. to the foundation to ensure that it would continue. Today, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is one of the world's largest private charities, thanks to its 34 percent ownership of Kellogg Co.