Mondelez International (MDLZ) CEO and chairman Irene Rosenfeld will step down as chief executive in November, the global snacking giant behind brands like Oreos, Triscuits, and Trident gum announced this morning. Rosenfeld, 64, will remain chairman until March when she’ll be replaced by her successor, Dirk Van de Put, currently the president and CEO of McCain Foods.
Rosenfeld told Fortune in an interview that she made the board aware of her desired timeline for retirement a number of years ago. “I care deeply about the company,” she said, “and I wasn’t ready to retire until we found the right successor.” She noted that the search was a multi-year process that considered both internal and external candidates.
Rosenfeld, a 35-year industry stalwart, took big and transformative bets over the course of her career. After becoming CEO of Kraft in 2006, she acquired Cadbury for nearly $20 billion in 2010 and subsequently split Kraft into two to create Mondelez. Rosenfeld then opted to run Mondelez, Kraft’s one-time global snacking business, which was the smaller of the two. Today some 85% of Mondelez’s $26 billion in revenue comes from snacking and about 40% is generated from emerging markets. Rosenfeld attempted another big play last summer with a bid for Hershey (HSY) that ultimately failed.
“I had the courage to make some bold moves that weren’t the easy route but were the right route,” she told Fortune. Rosenfeld said she considered herself a “chess player, not a checkers player” and has therefore always looked two to three moves ahead. “That’s always served us exceptionally well,” she added.
Rosenfeld departs amid a tumultuous time for the food world. At a conference in February she called it “one of the of most volatile and uncertain that I’ve seen in my 35 years in the industry.” She has contended with activist investors including Bill Ackman and Nelson Peltz, commodity and currency swings, and geopolitical turmoil. Like the rest of its Big Food brethren, Mondelez is facing what Rosenfeld called a “broad slow down” across all food and beverage categories in North America in part caused by a consumer migration to smaller health-focused brands. Mondelez’s stock is down about 2% year to date versus a nearly 11% increase for the S&P.
Rosenfeld called her successor, Van de Put, an “ambidextrous leader,” who before joining McCain Foods—a privately held $7.3 billion Canadian company that’s the leader in frozen French fries—worked at Novartis, Danone, Mars, and Coca-Cola. She said the board had been impressed with his ability to grow both the top and bottom line, “particularly in categories that were a little bit more challenged.” “French fries as you can imagine are not necessarily an on-trend category,” she said. But during his tenure at McCain, Van de Put grew net sales 50% and EBITDA double digits for each of the past six years.
“The challenge for Dirk is to unleash the growth potential of this company,” she said.
Rosenfeld detailed how the consumer has shifted at an “unbelievably rapid” pace toward health and wellness while simultaneously becoming more starved for time in a digital world that is increasingly bifurcated by income. “These are significant trends that have changed so dramatically over the course of my career,” she said.
The retail landscape has also evolved significantly with the expansion of convenience stores, discounters like Lidl and Aldi entering the U.S., and the explosion of e-commerce. She said Amazon’s (AMZN) acquisition of Whole Foods (WFM) will have an impact on the sector but that its speed and magnitude has probably been overstated. “It’s a testament to the fact that consumers are shopping in a variety of channels,” she said.
In response to the consumer and retail shifts, Mondelez has made a big push into e-commerce and set a goal of making it a $1 billion business by 2020—the same year it has committed to having half of its revenue come from healthy products. For example, it is launching its savory biscuit brand Vea in the U.S. and rolling out organic Triscuits. In 2015 it acquired allergen-free snack company Enjoy Life Foods. In an analyst note from June, Credit-Suisse’s Robert Moskow wrote that “whether those tactics can materially move the needle is still up for grabs.”
Rosenfeld said she is focused on the leadership transition and hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what’s next. She is, however, ready for time off and plans to focus on some personal interests—she loves to play the the piano and enjoys teaching.
“I would simply say the intensity of being on 24/7 is something I will not miss,” she said. “When I was making the Cadbury acquisition I would go to bed at night and everything was fine and then the next morning all hell had broken loose. That’s sort of a regular occurrence in my life.” She also pointed to the recent malware attack that wreaked havoc on its operations. “I won’t miss the 24/7 fires that have to be fought.”