Danone Starts Search for New CEO as Faber to Give Up Role

Danone said Emmanuel Faber will step down as chief executive officer in an attempt to alleviate pressure from shareholders who have called for new management to revive the world’s largest yogurt maker.

Danone said late Monday it will separate the chairman and CEO positions, which Faber, 57, has held for the past three years. Once the company finds a new CEO, Faber will become non-executive chairman. The stock fell as much as 2.3% in Paris.

Danone Starts Search for New CEO as Faber to Give Up Role

Danone is suffering on three fronts. Nondairy substitutes are failing to compensate for a slowdown in yogurt. Meanwhile demand for bottled water has wilted as restaurants close due to the pandemic, while infant formula sales weaken due to slowing birthrates.

“This is not a clean break,” wrote Bruno Monteyne, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. The situation risks either leading to a new CEO who is controlled by Faber, or another standoff with investors further down the line, he said.

Bluebell Capital Partners, one of the shareholders that campaigned for a management shake-up, said that the announcement marks a step in the right direction, but what Danone really needs is external leadership.

“There should be an outside candidate, somebody who is not connected to the past,” said Bluebell Chief Investment Officer Giuseppe Bivona. “It’s good to split the role of chairman and CEO, but obviously what we want, what the company deserves, is an independent chairman, which clearly is not going to be the case.”

The company said the board unanimously supports Faber, who will continue managing Danone until a new CEO arrives.

A rising chorus of shareholders, including Artisan Partners Asset Management Inc. and Causeway Capital Management called for a management revamp in recent weeks. Pressure on Faber mounted as Danone’s shares lost a quarter of their value in 2020 and sales fell for the first time in more than 30 years.

Danone’s board Monday also appointed Gilles Schnepp as vice chairman, alongside Cecile Cabanis, the company’s former chief financial officer. Schnepp’s role as lead independent director will be transferred to Jean-Michel Severino, who also acts as head of the governance committee.

Analysts said that those shifts give Faber more power, as he pushed for Cabanis and Schnepp to become new board members last year.

“Faber’s presence as chair alongside former CFO Cecile Cabanis as vice-chair is likely to constrain the latitude of any new CEO,” said Martin Deboo, an analyst at Jefferies.

Artisan Partners didn’t immediately comment.

Having Faber serve as chairman will have a “highly detrimental effect” by hampering the board’s ability to attract talent, Bluebell co-founder Francesco Trapani and portfolio manager Nicolas Ceron wrote in a letter to Schnepp on Tuesday, urging the company to reconsider.

They also proposed that Danone increase the age limit for the role of chairman to 70 years from 65 currently, saying that the lower limit reduces the talent pool available within the board for the job. Bluebell has previously proposed naming Schnepp, 62, for the role.

Read more: Danone Investor Artisan Seeks Urgent Change to Avoid Damage

The maker of Actimel fermented drinks said Sunday it’s preparing to sell its stake in a Chinese dairy company worth more than $2 billion to fund stock buybacks in an attempt to boost shareholder returns.

Danone has spent years trying to revive dairy sales, and in 2020 the pandemic hit it harder than rivals. Faber started a strategic review in October and announced plans to cut as many as 2,000 jobs the following month.

Since becoming CEO in 2014, Faber has tried to improve Danone’s environmental and social credentials -- the company made its Evian bottled-water brand carbon neutral last year -- while also attempting to fix its ailing yogurt business.

After spending more than $10 billion to buy nondairy producer WhiteWave in 2017, alternative products made from soy and oats have yet to offset a drop in demand for traditional dairy products. Danone has also had a series of organizational changes in the last seven years, which Artisan Partners said is disruptive. The company has changed how it reports earnings on its categories and geographies several times, and replaced its chief financial officer in October.

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