Handywoman's special: Rebuilding $4.5 billion North American portfolio

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Renovation is a passion for Kim Feil and, in her job as senior VP-chief marketing officer for Sara Lee Corp.'s North American food and beverages unit, that love of putting things back together-better than before-will certainly come in handy.

Three days into her new gig, Ms. Feil-sans the power tools she wields for the ongoing renovations to her Chicago home-gathered together the heads of marketing for such meat, bakery and coffee businesses as Jimmy Dean, Sara Lee and Senseo. Though seemingly a small task, the staff meeting was a turning point for Sara Lee, uniting formerly far-flung brand leaders for the first time in one office under a single CMO to rebuild the flagging $4.5 billion portfolio.

The reorganization, first announced by Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes in February, is part of a massive corporate-transformation plan that includes selling or spinning off apparel, U.S. coffee retail and other businesses to focus on the company's food and beverage unit and a separate household-products business.

Ms. Barnes had already named former General Motors Corp. executive C.J. Fraleigh to head up North American Food and Beverages, and in early September tapped Ms. Feil, a 46-year-old veteran marketer whose resume boasts stints at PepsiCo (where she was first hired by Ms. Barnes), Cadbury Schweppes, Information Resources Inc. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. Her mission? To wield the unit's $150 million in advertising spending and a toolbox of other growing marketing resources to help turn around a roster of brands analysts are skeptical can make the turn.

`Retail-tainment'

Package goods are in Ms. Feil's genes, she said, noting that her father spent 38 years at Procter & Gamble Co. Though her undergrad years at Southern Methodist University were spent as a journalism/English major, grad school freelancing for Dallas Magazine led to an interview with Frito-Lay's head of insights that put an end to her intended journalism career and put her on the marketing track. The rest, as they say, is history. From Frito-Lay, Ms. Feil went on to Kentucky Fried Chicken (then part of PepsiCo), then to Cadbury Schweppes, where as senior VP-marketing she helped turn around 7Up while running a host of other beverage brands from among the company's large global roster. IRI and K-C followed before she joined Sara Lee.

Ms. Feil is first to admit that a little more than five weeks into the job, she is far from knowing exactly what lies ahead for the company as it attempts to "ignite and accelerate" its array of breads and desserts, packaged meat and beverage products, which all suffered sales declines during Sara Lee's recent quarter. But, she said, "everybody is here with a renewed vigor, having the three categories elbow-to-elbow in the same office." Joining them together for targeted marketing initiatives and what Ms. Feil refers to as "retail-tainment" will be a crucial step toward making the previously separate brands relevant in consumers' day-to-day lives, she said, as well developing a more cohesive, focused approach to innovation.

Upside of innovation

Herself a harried eater, Ms. Feil will be able to bring her own insights about the increasingly prevalent meals-on-the-run trend to bear on her job. "I have a lot of Sara Lee meats and delis and breads around, and I did even before taking the job," she said. She shrugs off naysayers like Neuberger Berman analyst Bill Leach, who made the glass-half-empty argument that the meat, bread and coffee categories Sara Lee is left with after getting rid of its peripheral brands are "mature commodity-driven industries where it's very hard to differentiate yourself." Instead, she gives the glass-half-full scenario: "Innovation in these categories has unbelievable upside."

Ms. Feil noted that bread is the fourth-largest sales category for retailers (second only to toilet paper in percentage of consumers who purchase it weekly) and meat the fifth. "Partnering with retailers, we can leverage both those categories to help them attract shoppers."

Despite her penchant for renovation, Ms. Feil adamantly stated that she has no plans to take a hatchet to the company's agency roster. But, as any newcomer does, she said, "we want to look at all of our marketing possibilities." After all, she is not afraid of the change that will in the end make Sara Lee look like new.

Just Asking

What's on your snack shelf? I eat a lot of fresh fruit and dried fruit but I still succumb to cravings for tortilla chips and salsa and chocolate, which I just saw another study about saying that it's good for you so I'm sticking with it.

How do you relieve stress? I'm part of a tennis group that plays two nights a week along the lakefront-even in the cold-and I bike ride roughly eight miles to get there and back. Also, my golden retriever is an avid swimmer and I take her to the lake.

Any childhood memories from your P&G-veteran dad's work? I remember when my dad came home and said `We just sold the world's biggest Tide display' and I also had [promotional materials featuring] Clorox's White Knight in my room.

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