Campbell’s New CEO Brings the Right Ingredients

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In its search for a growth recipe, Campbell Soup Co. is turning to a seasoned executive chef.

The packaged-food giant announced Thursday it had selected Mark Clouse as its next CEO, concluding a months-long search that kicked off after Denise Morrison’s abrupt departure from the top job earlier this year.

Clouse was most recently CEO of Pinnacle Foods Inc., the corporate parent of grocery-store staples such as Duncan Hines and Hungry-Man, until that company was acquired by Conagra Brands Inc. in a $10.9 billion deal that closed in October.

It’s a good sign for Campbell that Clouse was able to successfully steer Pinnacle into the arms of a suitor, as Campbell’s path forward likely includes a flurry of dealmaking. The company has already put its fresh division and its international business on the block. And perhaps Clouse will identify more pieces to unload.

In addition to his experience at Pinnacle, Clouse’s resume includes stints at other packaged-food giants, including Mondelez International Inc. and its predecessor Kraft Foods. That suggests he has a deep understanding of the problems plaguing Campbell, and can hit the ground running trying to devise solutions. In particular, it will be important for him to come up with a strategy for the namesake soup brand, which has suffered amid a long string of failed efforts to revitalize it and make it attractive to younger shoppers.

Campbell’s New CEO Brings the Right Ingredients

One other good sign about the Clouse pick? According to Bloomberg News, he has long been the preferred choice of activist investor Third Point, led by Dan Loeb, which had recently reached a settlement with Campbell after a bitter proxy fight. This would seem like a sign that longtime Campbell board members aren’t resistant to Loeb’s ideas, and the acrimony between the two factions may be smoothing over. That cooperation is crucial if this company is ever going to mount a bona fide comeback.  

I have noted before that whoever took the top job at Campbell was going to be putting themselves in a tough situation. For one, the revolving door we’ve seen at the top echelons of the packaged-food business lately suggest these jobs aren’t easy.  Mondelez, Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. all got new CEOs in 2018, as the companies look for fresh faces to lead their efforts to adapt to consumers’ emerging preference for healthy food. 

But the Campbell job comes with an added twist: It had already laid out major strategic priorities under its interim CEO, Keith McLoughlin, including the planned divestitures. So the permanent CEO was never going to have the chance to craft a turnaround strategy from scratch; they were going to inherit one sketched out by others. Clouse’s success will be contingent on the wisdom of those preordained plans – and his ability to pull them off.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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