Mars Axes Snack Chief as Snickers Sales Plummet

Unit President Firing is Latest Move in Aggressive Turnaround Effort

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NEW YORK ( -- Alarmed by a steep sales decline for Snickers, $18 billion food giant Mars has unceremoniously booted the 20-year company veteran who headed the U.S. snack-food unit that generates most of its profit.
Mars North America President Bob Gamgort has dismissed his snack-food unit chief and personally taken over a candy divison turnaround effort.
Mars North America President Bob Gamgort has dismissed his snack-food unit chief and personally taken over a candy divison turnaround effort.

Missed sales goals
The uncharacteristic ouster of Martyn Wilks, unit president for the past 18 months, is the latest play by Mars North America President Bob Gamgort, who is now taking the reins to repair Mars' ailing confection portfolio. "Mars didn't hit its sales and profit goals last year and, indicative of Bob's style, he wants to get a handle on what's working and what's not in the candy division, the company's primary profit center," said one Mars insider.

Mr. Gamgort's aggressive turnaround strategy in recent months has included pulling a number of less-than-stellar brands such as Cookies & and Pop'ables, and yanking trade spending from underperforming retail customers.

Ad agency shakeup
The shakeup hasn't spared the agency roster, which has been shuffled thoroughly. In the past 18 months, Mars has shifted its $38 million Snickers business to Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide from BBDO; terminated WPP Group's Grey Worldwide to move Twix and Dove to Nitro; handed Starburst to TBWA; and given BBDO, agency for M&M's, the Milky Way account.

A Mars spokeswoman confirmed that Mr. Wilks was out as of June 27. By the following day, Mr. Gamgort had fired off an internal memo explaining he's retaking the business he helmed only a few years ago until a successor can be found. "We need to move faster and more decisively if we're going to win in the marketplace and, as a result, I've decided to make a change in leadership," he wrote.

Mr. Wilks could not be reached for comment.

According to an executive close to the company, Mr. Wilks -- who had a good track record running businesses in the U.K. and France -- was "a process guy through and through." And while he was popular, especially with those he managed, for his perceptiveness and protectiveness, his success overseas did not translate domestically in his first U.S. operating position.

Though M&M's grew 2% to $509 million, the company's normally top-selling candy bar, Snickers, saw sales plunge 11% to $246 million in food, drug and mass outlets excluding Wal-Mart for the 52 weeks ended May 21. Starburst sales slid 7% to $92 million, Skittles skittered down 3% to $74 million, Twix tumbled 7% to $65 million and Combos crashed 13% to $25 million.

Disputed figures
Mars, however, disputes this. Data it provided from IRI through June 18 of this year in all outlets show M&M's up 2.7%, Dove up 24.2%, Skittles up 4%, Starburst up 1.1%, Twix up 2.7% and Snickers down 0.7%. For the latest four weeks, a spokeswoman said, Mars' total chocolate business grew 7.7% in those outlets.

But buyers said the business has been in serious trouble. "Mars has really dropped the ball," said one East Coast grocery executive, noting that sales for many Mars brands he carries have fallen in recent months.

IRI data show that Hershey's total chocolate-candy sales rose 4.1% in dollars to $1.97 billion in food, drug and mass merchandisers for the 52 weeks ending June 18, while Mars' declined 2.8% to $1.08 billion.

The decision to part ways with Mr. Wilks so quickly is part of the new Mars culture being fashioned by 43-year-old Mr. Gamgort and Mars' CEO Paul Michaels. The staid family-owned company is not typically the kind of place to give an executive notice and show him the door the same day, according to company-watchers. But, said one executive close to Mars, "Bob just lost confidence in Martyn."
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