Hershey CEO to Retire in 2017

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Hershey Co. chairman, president and CEO John Bilbrey plans to retire next summer, the company said on Friday. The chocolate maker must now decide who from inside or outside the company will be the next person in charge.

Hershey, which rejected takeover advances from rival Mondelez International this year, has been trying a variety of methods to appeal to changing consumer tastes and snacking habits. In the past two years, Hershey has acquired Krave Pure Foods, the maker of Krave meat jerky, and Ripple Brand Collective, maker of the BarkThins line, to appeal to those looking for different types of snacks. At the same time, Hershey has been simplifying the ingredients in well-known items including Hershey's milk chocolate bars and Kisses.

The company also reaffirmed by its 2016 financial forecasts Friday. In July, the company said it expected sales to rise about 1% this year. Profit is expected to be $3.77 to $3.86 per share, or $4.24 to $4.28 on an adjusted basis that excludes certain items. Hershey is set to report third-quarter results on Oct. 28.

Industry analysts quickly said Chief Operating Officer Michele Buck was the most likely person to get the CEO post. Ms. Buck, who has worked at Hershey since 2005, was promoted in June to COO from president of the company's North American business.

Hershey said its board had appointed a special committee to lead the CEO search, led by Pamela Arway, chair of the governance committee. Executive search firm Egon Zehnder is assisting in the process, which will include internal and external candidates.

Some were were already viewing Ms. Buck as next in line to become CEO. In a June 2 research note, J.P. Morgan analyst Ken Goldman wrote "We would not be surprised if Ms. Buck is being groomed to be the next CEO." At that time, he pointed out that "the last two Hershey managers to be named COO eventually became CEO."

On Friday, Mr. Goldman said that he had spoken with Hershey "and got the sense Ms. Buck is still the leading candidate for the job."

Hershey did not say when it would make a CEO announcement. The change at the top comes as the Hershey Trust, which holds a majority stake in the chocolate maker, is going through its own issues. The trust is reconfiguring its board of directors after reaching a resolution with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office following concerns over board governance.

Mr. Bilbrey plans to retire July 1, 2017, but remain on the board as non-executive chairman. He has been with Hershey for 13 years and has been president CEO since May 2011, adding the title of chairman in April 2015.

"I have had the privilege of working in consumer packaged goods for more than 35 years and leading The Hershey Company has been the highlight of my career," Mr. Bilbrey said in a statement.

Hershey's total U.S. advertising declined 13.8% to $637 million last year, according to the Ad Age Datacenter. This year, Hershey bet heavily on Olympics advertising during its first summer as a Team USA sponsor.

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