Nathan Cummings

Country of origin: Canada

Business: The Hillshire Brands Company (1939)

Headquarters: Chicago, IL

2013 revenue: $3.9 billion (merged with Tyson Foods in 2014)

Worldwide employment: 9,100

Ranked 220 in the 2012 Fortune 500 (as Sara Lee)

  • In 1944, Time magazine named Nathan Cummings “Duke of Groceries.”

  • The foundation he established distributes more than $20 million annually.

“Nothing will ever be accomplished if all possible objections must first be overcome” was Nathan Cummings’ credo. Such a slogan carried Cummings from a simple shoe salesman to running one of America’s most loved food brands.

Cummings was born in Saint John, Canada, by accident. His parents were emigrating from Lithuania and on their way to New York City when they disembarked at the first port of call, Saint John, mistaking it for their destination, New York.

When he was 14, Cummings left high school to attend the Dry Good Economist Training School in New York and then joined his father’s shoe business. He became a traveling shoe salesman at age 19. Within a decade, he opened his first business, a shoe shop and factory.

It did not survive the depression, but Cummings was undeterred. He acquired a Canadian biscuit and candy company and sold it for a profit in 1939. His skillful management attracted the attention of investors in Baltimore-based C.D. Kenny Company, a coffee, tea and sugar chain. Cummings was invited to manage the company, which he subsequently acquired.

Cummings retired from the company in 1968 but remained active in company affairs until his death in 1985. His business formula to “acquire control of good, old, large companies and apply streamlining” worked so well that in 1944 Time magazine named him “Duke of Groceries.”

As the company grew, the name changed several times until in 1985 it took on the name of its most well-known brand, Sara Lee. The company continued to grow, selling food, beverages, and household products in more than 180 countries. In 2012, Sara Lee Corporation split into two companies. The North American operations, including brands such as Hillshire Farm, Jimmy Dean and Sara Lee, were renamed The Hillshire Brands Company, and D.E Master Blenders 1753 was created to manage the international beverage and bakery businesses out of its headquarters in the Netherlands. In late 2014, Hillshire, the 11th largest U.S. meat processing company, merged with the largest, Tyson Foods, for $7.7 billion. The same year, D.E. Master Blenders 1753 merged with Mondelēz International to form Jacobs Douwe Egberts, creating a coffee company with over $7 billion in annual revenue.

Cummings was also known as a great philanthropist. In 1949, he established the Nathan Cummings Foundation and became a major donor to universities, hospitals, arts organizations and Jewish causes. The Foundation inherited most of his $200 million estate and has since distributed nearly $500 million in grants to initiatives to build a socially and economically just society.

Learn more about how immigrant entrepreneurs have contributed to the food industry with the blog post The 2018 ILC Entrepreneur Awards nominees add spice.

Updated July 2022