A long State Road 35 on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, there’s a junkyard filled with old boats, cars and refrigerators, where 20,000 pounds of aluminum gets melted down every day. A handwritten sign tacked onto the front door reminds all those who enter: Put Shirts On. Inside sits Bill Holst, the 69-year-old blue-jeaned, third-generation corn farmer who started this scrap-metal business 12 years ago. “I see value in things that other people don’t see value in,” he says. “I’m more of a risk-taker.”
All of which explains one of Holst’s more exotic businesses: Hangzhou Qiandaohu Xunlong Sci-Tech, a sprawling sturgeon farm and caviar-processing company based 7,000 miles away at a man-made lake in eastern China. Hangzhou is now the largest caviar company in the world: It controls 30% of the global market and will bring in an estimated $35 million in revenue this year. That scale, combined with low labor costs and high retail prices—an ounce can cost upwards of $150—gives the company an estimated 25% profit margin. Holst owns about 24% of the joint venture and is its single largest (and only American) investor.