By Amelia Santaniello

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A hometown company is celebrating a huge anniversary — General Mills has been around for a century and a half.

“The Big G” is the world’s sixth-largest food company, with $17 billion in annual sales. Marketing hundreds of brands, from Cheerios and Yoplait yogurt to Old El Paso and Progresso, Nature Valley Granola to Annie’s Organic.

Amelia Santaniello took a tour of the General Mills archives, where she saw the original Betty Crocker and even got to hold a Pillsbury doughboy from 1965. She also talked with CEO Ken Powell about the company’s plans for the next 150 years.

Powell talks about the changes in the food industry as someone who’s been at General Mills for 37 years. He was elected its CEO in 2007.

“We’re in a high change era,” he said. “Consumers are really thinking differently of food, especially millennial, younger consumers — that’s our largest group. They’re forming families now, and so they’re very influential. And they have lots of new ideas about what they want in their food. They want, as they say, ‘harder working calories.'”

As a result, General Mills is innovating new brands while renovating old ones.

“For example, Cheerios — which is our most important brand — everyone knows it, of course,” Powell said. “So we’ve done lots of things to Cheerios over the years — added whole grain, added fiber, most recently — eliminating gluten from cheerios. Once we took the gluten out, we saw sales of cheerios increase, because there are many millions of consumers who are avoiding that.”

So why did General Mills sell off Green Giant?

“It is a very famous brand,” Powell said. “We have so many other opportunities around the world in cereal, and yogurt, and in snacking — both here and in Europe and in China. And it just was something that wasn’t getting prioritized.”

Now the priority for a 150-year-old Minnesota company to stay strong is to move with the times.

“Because if we’re quick and we’re fast, and if we’re hearing things clearly and better than our competitors, and then we make changes and we move on it, this becomes huge opportunity for us,” Powell said.

Powell says one of the biggest opportunities the company has is buying innovative smaller companies and helping them grow, like Annie’s Organics, Lara Bars and Epic Meat Bars.

Amelia Santaniello