Player Profile: Lenny hopes to find more sweet success at Hershey

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In 1977, when Rick Lenny graduated from Northwestern University with his MBA, it was his cousin's work in the ad business that influenced his decision to go into package-goods marketing. Little did he know that nearly a quarter of a century later, he would have under his belt experience with some of the world's top brands: Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Pillsbury refrigerated dough and Nabisco cookies and crackers.

Fast-forward past Mr. Lenny's 18 years at Kraft Foods, three at Pillsbury Co. and three at Nabisco (the last months of which again placed him under the Kraft umbrella, thanks to its recent acquisition of the cookie and cracker company), the 49-year-old food guru now stands poised to take on another set of American icons.

As the new president-CEO of Hershey Foods Corp., a position to which he was named March 12, he will focus his passion for brands on such familiar names as Hershey, Kit Kat, Milk Duds and Jolly Rancher. "Hershey is blessed with powerful brand equities, and the question will be how to add value [to them] through benefit upgrades, line extensions or innovative packaging," Mr. Lenny said.

However, he doesn't seem particularly interested in reinventing the wheel. Instead, just as he did in his most recent position as president of Nabisco Biscuit Co., Mr. Lenny's primary focus at Hershey will be taking the company's core brands and "adding concentric circles, which is certainly more cost-effective and competitively advantageous [than] creating new brands," he said.

At Nabisco, Mr. Lenny points to the success of such strategies as extending the Oreo and Chips Ahoy! brands with Mini versions and creating resealable "on-the-go" packaging for some of the company's top snack brands to capitalize on consumer demand for indulgence and portability. Such efforts have given Mr. Lenny a good reputation on Wall Street.

"Rick has a great track record as a brand builder, especially most recently at Nabisco, where he really restored the strength of their biscuit division with good new product innovation, good marketing, good in-and-out products and by helping turn around its direct store delivery system," said Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Dave Nelson.

Industry observers note Hershey, known for its insular conservatism, could use a dose of innovation, but Mr. Lenny hardly faces a company in need of turnaround. After problems implementing a new distribution system in 1999, Hershey restored sales, market share and earnings growth in 2000, marking its best year volume-wise since 1996. The company ranks No. 1 in overall candy and No. 2 in nonchocolate candy, a position buoyed by the acquisitions of Leaf in 1996 and of Nabisco's Intense gum and mint brands last December. Hershey splits its account between WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, and Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, New York.

Now, the challenge is to grow the business even further. To do that, Mr. Lenny pledges to expand his sights beyond the candy arena.

"The sweet-snacking occasion at Hershey is one that Rick is very familiar with from working with cookies, and his purview now is to take on the $50 billion macro-snacking category, which is very appropriate," Mr. Nelson said.

"The most important thing is understanding within a market structure where a brand can travel," said Mr. Lenny. And if his own journey is any indication, that expanse could be larger than anyone expects.

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