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Without a chief operating officer as point man-or fall guy-for his troubled $1.7 billion Snapple buyout, Quaker Oats Co. CEO William Smithburg has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Aiming to restore his credibility with both Wall Street and likely his own board, Mr. Smithburg said last week that he will personally take charge of operating the $6.3 billion beverage and food company.

Although analysts speculate the departure of President-Chief Operating Officer Philip A. Marineau, 49, was residual fallout from the Snapple acquisition, both he and Mr. Smithburg said the move was related to a corporate streamlining that eradicated the need for a No. 2 executive.

"I held the chief operating officer [post] for several years and results were quite good even then," Mr. Smithburg told analysts late last week. The second time around may not be as easy.

Mr. Smithburg has cast himself as the central player in what will become one of the food industry's boldest turnarounds or one of its most spectacular failures.

"There will be mounting pressure on Smithburg," said William Maguire, analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. "He can't put anyone else in charge-he's got himself in a box."

Mr. Smithburg's go-it-alone strategy may be a last, best chance by him and Quaker's board to salvage the costly Snapple acquisition and maintain the company's independence.

"The success of Snapple is crucial to the future of Quaker," said Mr. Marineau, whose last months at the marketer were spent almost entirely on a Snapple revival plan.

Although Snapple has posted double-digit sales increases in the past month and relations with distributors have improved dramatically, the question remains whether the unit's growth will ever justify its purchase price.

Speaking to analysts last week, Donald Uzzi, president of Quaker's North America beverage business, predicted that Snapple will post a 15% sales gain next year-enough to restore it to profitability. The brand's sales are expected to decline 3% to 5% this year from 1994's $670 million.

It was the quest for a sexier, higher-growth business that prompted Quaker to buy Snapple last year and jettison its slower-growth money-makers, such as the U.S. and European pet food businesses.

But the company ended up paying an enormous premium for a brand that was declining amid heightened competition, and bungling relations with independent bottlers and licensees.

During the first half of 1995, distributors reported a drop in Snapple sales of as much as 25% to 30%.

Ironically, Mr. Marineau is stepping aside just as the company is launching an initiative to revive Snapple.

Three days before his resignation, Mr. Marineau gave the concluding address at a national sales meeting for Snapple and Gatorade distributors and brokers in San Diego at which executives had outlined their Snapple game plan: new packaging, six new flavors and 20,000 new coolers for retailers.

Even distributors put off by Quaker's clumsy and unsuccessful attempts at revamping Snapple's distribution give Quaker credit for now having a strategy.

And some indicators seem to be turning around for Snapple. For the four-week period ended Oct. 14, sales of Snapple teas were up 14% from depressed year-earlier levels, according to Nielsen Marketing Research figures provided by Quaker.

But Wall Street is skeptical that Quaker can return the brand to the double-digit gains it needs to make the stock attractive for reasons other than as a takeover play.

"To justify the price they paid, they have to hope for more than a turnaround," said David Rabinowitz, analyst at Smith Barney & Co., New York. "Can they grow the business fast enough to justify the price they paid? I don't believe so."

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