Mr. Polman, who had largely been the face of Nestle to the investment community and much of the outside world since he was appointed to the post in 2005, had been widely expected to get the nod. Instead, Mr. Bulcke will become CEO, effective April 10. Mr. Brabeck will remain as non-executive chairman.
"The Board chose a strong and pragmatic business leader, ideally suited to lead the group in a period that will be marked by a phase of strategic and operational consolidation and a continued broadening of our Nutrition, Health and Wellness business," Mr. Brabeck said in a statement. "As a member of Nestle's Executive Board, in charge of Zone Americas, he played a decisive role in transforming this region not only into the group's largest, but also into its most profitable one. He furthermore participated actively in the Group's strategic and operational transformation and assumed a key role in delivering the results needed to achieve the Nestle model."
Asked whether Mr. Polman would remain as CFO, having been passed over as CEO, a Nestle spokesman said: "I have no indication to the contrary."
Mr. Polman said through a Nestle spokesman that he "has no intention of leaving the company."
Rising through the ranks
Mr. Bulcke joined Nestle in 1979, rising through the ranks of the organization in Western Europe and Latin America. He led the company's businesses in Portugal, the Czech and Slovak Republic and Germany before taking on his current role overseeing the Americas business.
Financial analysts and industry watchers widely expected Mr. Polman to get the nod, and publications, including Advertising Age, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, had predicted he would be the one.
Nestle, in its statement, said the selection of Mr. Bulcke concluded a process started in 2005, at which point it decided to combine the roles of chairman and CEO to "accelerate the strategic transformation process" in favor of nutrition, health and wellness. With Nestle having reached its objective of becoming the world's foremost nutrition company, it said the board found the "time was appropriate to again separate" the chairman and CEO posts and "bring about a generational change at the CEO level."