Denise Morrison, Big Food's voice of change, exits Campbell

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Credit: Campbell Soup Co.

Campbell Soup Co., which is trying to rebound from a packaged goods slump with fresher foods, will cook up a new strategy under a new CEO.

Chief Executive Officer Denise Morrison "has chosen to retire effective today," Campbell Soup said in a statement early Friday.

She's being replaced on an interim basis by Keith McLoughlin, one of the soup maker's board members.

Campbell also said it's reviewing the structure of its portfolio and strategic plans, and plans to discuss that review in late August. And the food marketer cut its financial forecasts for the current fiscal year, which it is already three-fourths of the way through.

Morrison, 64, joined Campbell in 2003 and had been its president and CEO since August 2011. She was a strong advocate for change in Big Food, often taking the stage at industry conferences to proclaim that the industry needs to adapt more rapidly to "seismic shifts" to remain relevant.

The abrupt nature of Morrison's resignation took Wall Street by surprise.

As JP Morgan food industry analyst Ken Goldman summed up the major news Friday, "Waiter, There are Many Flies in My Soup – CPB Cuts Guidance, Announces CEO Change, Starts Strategic Review," he wrote in the subject line of a morning research note.

The latest shakeup comes after Campbell announced a strategic reorganization April 5 that included naming Luca Mignini as chief operating officer, responsible for the company's core soup, simple meals, shelf-stable beverages, and global biscuits and snacks businesses. Campbell also set up an "Accelerator" unit as part of that restructuring meant to continue its push into more rapidly growing areas.

Denise Morrison
Denise Morrison Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

"I am proud of Campbell's accomplishments and how we have transformed our portfolio amid changing consumer tastes for food and health and well-being," Morrison said in a statement. "It has been an honor to lead this iconic company and exceptional team, and I am confident that Campbell will enjoy continued success for many years to come."

Campbell, which has long tried to expand its portfolio well beyond the sluggish soup category, has added brands such as Bolthouse Farms, Plum Organics and Garden Fresh Gourmet to diversify its lineup, which already included products such as Pepperidge Farm, Prego and V8. It made one of its biggest bets this year when it paid about $4.87 billion for pretzels and chips maker Snyder's-Lance. That deal, which closed in late March, made snacks a much bigger part of the business. Snacking now makes up about 47 percent of Campbell's annual sales, up from 32 percent before that deal.

Soup, meanwhile, represents about 26 percent of annual sales, down from 40 percent in 2011, the year Morrison became its CEO.

"It has been a tumultuous period for the company during CEO Morrison's tenure although the portfolio improved and the company reduced the importance of the soup business," Stifel analyst Christopher Growe said in a note to investors, adding that he found the move surprising ahead of the integration of Snyder's-Lance.

Fiscal third-quarter sales rose 15 percent to nearly $2.13 billion, but that's all from a 14-point lift from the acquisitions of Snyder's-Lance and Pacific Foods plus a 1-point lift from currency translation. So-called organic sales, which strip out such fluctuations, were flat. Other branded soup companies and private-label soups gained share in the U.S. while Campbell saw its sales fall in the latest 52 weeks, according to IRI data provided by the company.

In March, Campbell selected Publicis Groupe to handle creative and media work for many of its most well-known brands, including soup.

Campbell said that as McLoughlin handles interim CEO duties, Mignini is focusing on integrating the company's two recent big acquisitions, Snyder's-Lance and Pacific Foods, and on stabilizing the U.S. soup business.

Interim CEO McLoughlin joined Campbell's board in 2016. He was president and CEO of household appliances maker AB Electrolux from 2011 until 2016.

As JP Morgan's Goldman noted, Morrison's departure is the latest in a series of CEO shake-ups in Big Food. Fifteen CEO changes have occurred in the packaged food and protein industry since the beginning of 2016, Goldman says.

Shares of Campbell were down 11.4 percent to $34.75 in morning trading. Shares of other U.S. packaged foods makers were also trending lower.

In March, Campbell selected Publicis Groupe to handle creative and media work for many of its most well-known brands, including soup.
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