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ECKERT'S ENTERPRISE CRAFTS NO. 2 SLOT AT KRAFT FOODS;PLAYER OF THE WEEK;OSCAR MAYER PRESIDENT BRINGS 19 YEARS ON JOB, REPUTATION FOR TURNAROUNDS

By Published on .

With the appointment of Robert Eckert to group VP, Kraft Foods has moved a dyed-in-the-wool marketing man into the No. 2 position at the country's largest food company.

Previously president of Oscar Mayer Foods, Mr. Eckert retains responsibility for that unit while adding the foodservice group and five operational staff groups, including marketing services, sales, operations, technology and business development. He adds some duties previously held by John Bowlin, now president-CEO, Kraft Foods International, and will report to Robert Morrison, chairman-CEO of Kraft Foods.

GUTSY, SMART

Mr. Eckert, who turns 42 this week, was vacationing in the north woods of Michigan when the announcement was made and was unavailable for an interview. But those who know him credit Mr. Eckert with gutsy price moves and smart new-product introductions that helped turn around two Kraft divisions he's worked closely with-cheese and Oscar Mayer.

Once considered a rather slow-moving unit laden with high-fat cold cut lines, Oscar Mayer during Mr. Eckert's tenure introduced a line of fat-free meats as well as launched the highly successful Lunchables line. Those two products alone contributed $400 million in sales to date.

Moreover, Mr. Eckert is credited as a force behind the unit's "Talent Search," the national PR and advertising campaign that drove brand recognition through a program that included buying time on the Super Bowl broadcast. Talent Search linked national advertising with a PR push and trade marketing programs by having the search for the next Oscar Mayer spokeschild held at local supermarkets across the country.

`BREATHED NEW LIFE'

Mr. Eckert joined Oscar Mayer in 1993 from Kraft's cheese division, where, starting in 1990, he was general manager. While there, he helped "turn around the brand, catapulting it the way he breathed new life into Oscar Mayer," said Gary Singer, senior VP-account director at Leo Burnett USA, one of Kraft's cheese agencies.

Mr. Singer said Mr. Eckert "took a leadership role in decreasing prices of cheese," in the early 1990s, a move he said "some see as the prototype for Marlboro Friday and [1996's] cereal price cuts."

A lifer at Kraft, Mr. Eckert joined up in 1977 after earning his MBA in marketing from Northwestern University. Working his way up the corporate ladder in marketing posts, Mr. Eckert was named VP-strategy and development for the grocery products division 10 years later. From there, he moved to VP-marketing, refrigerated products, before taking the cheese division post in 1990.

`SEASONED AND CAPABLE'

"Bob's 19 years of management at Kraft across a wide variety of categories and businesses have made him one of our most seasoned and capable executives," Mr. Morrison said announcing the promotion.

"In this business, you're not always happy when somebody is promoted [at a client]," said Mr. Singer. "But I'm really, really glad this happened."

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