Through a career that began with selling brooms and peaked with the invention of breakfast cereal, W.K. Kellogg became one of the world’s wealthiest men. He chose to use his millions to create in 1930 the Foundation that bore his name and launched a legacy that would serve humanity for generations to come.
Will Keith Kellogg was born April 7, 1860, to Michigan pioneer parents. Later, he would point out that he was “the seventh son, born on the seventh day of the week, on the seventh day of the month.” But from his youth, W.K. relied on hard work, instead of fate or destiny, to make his way in the world.
At age 14, W.K. quit school to become a broom salesman. He hadn’t been much of a student anyway. His teachers had labeled him as “dimwitted.” (The real problem, he learned 20 years later, was nearsightedness – he couldn’t see the blackboard).
W.K. was painfully shy in most social situations. Yet in a business setting, other traits outweighed his shortcomings: W.K. was a careful observer and a shrewd bargainer, with a photographic memory and a penchant for working 120-hour weeks.
Nonetheless, until age 46, W.K. labored in relative obscurity. After leaving the family broom business at age 20, he worked for his brother, the flamboyant physician Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. W.K. was bookkeeper, business manager, and jack-of-all-trades at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, then one of the nation’s leading health spas.
The Kellogg’s were Seventh-day Adventists and personal health was a tenet of the faith. Smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and eating meat were all prohibited. Consequently, the San was an early proponent of what’s now termed “health food.” And so it was, on a fateful night in 1894, that a new industry was born.
W.K. Kellogg was working late in the San’s kitchen trying to find a digestible substitute for bread. By accident, he let stand a batch of boiled wheat. When he returned the next day, the “tempered” wheat had turn into flakes. From this discovery came Corn Flakes, the Kellogg Company, and ultimately, the Kellogg Foundation.
The Kellogg Company was started in 1906, after W.K. parted ways with his brother, (who didn’t see the market potential of breakfast cereal). But success didn’t come easy. On July 4th, 1907, the first Kellogg plant burned to the ground. With the ruins still smoking, W.K. rushed an architect to the scene and began designing a new, fireproof plant. As always, this shy man was immensely confident in the rightness of his cause.
W.K. went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest men. But with his puritanical conscience, he felt guilty living the lavish life of a millionaire. Instead, W.K. felt obligated to use his fortune for the benefit of humankind: “If I am successful in getting out of debt, and become prosperous …” he wrote in 1909, “I expect to make good use of any wealth that may come to me.”
In 1930, W.K. Kellogg made good on that promise when he established the Kellogg Foundation. During his lifetime, he donated most of his fortune—$66 million—to create the Foundation’s endowment.
W.K. died in 1951 at age 91. For the last 10 years of his life, he was nearly blind. But until virtually the day of his death, he was interested and well-informed about the workings of the Kellogg Foundation. This inner vision—of his hard-earned fortune, serving humanity across the generations—gave him joy and comfort till the end.