Food Industry Business: A Bumper Crop of New CEOs

Baby Boomers (and one Gen Xer) are taking the helms of top food companies.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Maybe it was the recession. Maybe the golden parachutes. Perhaps there's too much pressure now at the top. It seems to us there has been an unusually high turnover among chief executive officers at leading food & beverage companies over the past 14 months.

Since November of 2009, we count six new CEOs (plus two divisional CEOs, three COOs and three unit presidents) among the 37 largest U.S. and Canadian food & beverage companies (as ranked by the Food Processing Top 100©). Interestingly, six in this story have taken over just this year.

It looks like the baby boomers are taking over. Between 46 and 65 years old, those postwar babies are in their prime to be leading companies. However, one CEO included in this report – John Bryant at Kellogg – is one year too young to even qualify as a boomer.

A generation some 76 million strong, the first wave of baby boomers turned 65 on Dec. 25. According to Pew Research Center, the typical boomer feels nine years younger and thinks "old age" starts at age 72. It's no wonder many are vigorously ensconced in their career success and continue to lead their companies to success. At the same time, we see several choosing to retire early to spend some quality years enjoying the fruits of their labors.

Of the leaders we highlight -- three are foreign-born — from Britain, Australia, Spain. Three are veterans of Proctor & Gamble's world-famous management training program, most have international experience and, unlike our 2008 report, which included two new female chief executives, all are men (Denise Morrison, CEO-designate at Campbell Soup, took a last-minute pass on this story, Sarah Robb O'Hagan of Gatorade is featured).

By the way, there remains a job opening at the top of Sara Lee, in case any of you are interested.

We asked them to give us outlooks for the whole food industry on the year ahead and for their companies, and to hint at some of the changes they'll be making now that they are in charge.

CEO: Donald (Donnie) Smith, Tyson Foods Inc.

Since being named Tyson Foods Inc.'s  CEO in November 2009, Donnie Smith has steered the Springdale, Ark., company through one of its most tumultuous periods. Worldwide sales that year had dropped (not an unusual thing for Tyson) and the company reported a huge net loss of $551 million. Dick Bond, leader since the 2001 IBP acquisition (where he came from), left suddenly at the start of 2009, and Tyson temporarily was being headed by its 71-year-old former CEO from the 1990s, Leland Tollett.

While he can't take full credit for the turnaround, Smith, then just 50, certainly was a part of it as senior group vice president of Tyson's key poultry and prepared foods business. Sales in fiscal 2010 jumped 6.5 percent, to $28.4 billion, and more important was the $765 million net profit. It's all good news for the 115,000 team members employed at more than 400 facilities and offices in the U.S. and 100 countries around the world.

Smith joined Tyson in 1980 right out of college; he graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in animal science. He's a classic case of learning all the ropes. In his 30 years at Tyson, he worked in purchasing, environmental, health and safety, food safety and quality assurance, manufacturing services, information systems and logistics.

"Looking forward into 2011, we obviously have some turbulence to deal with," Smith says. "Inputs, especially corn, are going to be a challenge, but we're doing everything we can to offset those inputs through pricing, operational efficiencies and managing our product mix."

The 2009 stall in capital investment is over. "We began in late 2009 and we'll continue through 2011 investing capital in the vast majority of our domestic chicken plants. In our fresh plants, the primary focus of our capital spend is to increase yield, labor and line efficiencies while concurrently improving our flexibility to produce a more market-relevant product mix," he said. "We're also investing in our further-processing plants to improve line efficiencies to keep pace with customer demand for our value added products. The investment and size of the profit improvement projects differ from plant to plant, but many of them will produce a return of between 25 percent and 40 percent. We still have work to do, but we feel very good about our ability to mitigate at least some of the increased inputs with lower conversion costs."

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