Why Big Food Is Having a Mass CEO Exodus

The past year and a half has been open season for headhunters in the food industry.

It started back in May 2016 when Mark Smucker became CEO of the family’s namesake jams and jellies maker, replacing his uncle who had served in the top job for 15 years. Then that fall, a wave of leadership change began at Big Meat: First Hormel orchestrated a passing of the chief executive baton in October, and Tyson followed in December. At the end of the year Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb officially stepped down, leaving John Mackey as the high-end grocer’s sole head honcho. That same day, Paul Bulcke abdicated at Nestlé after eight-plus years on the throne.

As the months progressed so did the departures—and among them some of the industry’s lions. Muhtar Kent left his post at the pinnacle of Coca-Cola this spring after more than eight years on the job; Ken Powell did the same at General Mills at the end of May as he crept up on a decade tenure; and some two months later Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld announced her plans to retire from the maker of Oreo, Cadbury, and Trident after more than 10 years as the head of the $26 billion snacking giant.

By the end of August, 17 CEOs of public Big Food manufacturers and retailers had departed, or announced their intention to, in almost as many months. “This is a pretty unprecedented situation where you see that level of turnover in such a short space of time,” says Bernstein analyst Alexia Howard.

Inauguration du nouveau centre de recherche Kraft foods, industrie agroalimentaire
Mondelez’s Rosenfeld announced in August she would step down as CEO this fall. She began her reign as head of Kraft, where she spun off the North American grocery business in 2012 to create the global snacking giant with remaining powerhouse brands like Cadbury, Oreo, and Nabisco crackers.Romain Gaillard—REA/Redux
Romain Gaillard—REA/Redux

Is this coincidence, or evidence of some meaningful moment in the nearly $1 trillion U.S. grocery industry? The answer may be a bit of both. Some of the CEOs were Big Food veterans just following the normal course of succession as they approached the age of 65. But for years now they had also been under an enormous amount of pressure. “There’s never been a time that’s more challenging for a CEO in the industry,” says David Garfield of consultancy AlixPartners. “They’re facing unprecedented change.” Howard believes the rash of departures is clearly linked to the deterioration in the broader Big Food climate. The former industry executives she talks to are telling her “it’s really changed,” Howard says. “They’re relatively unbiased at this point, and they’re saying it’s really tough out there.”

For one thing, the old tricks of the trade have stopped working. The outgoing class of CEOs rose up through the ranks during the glory days of big brands, a period when what Boston Consulting Group partner Jim Brennan calls the “model for winning” came simply from economies of scale in manufacturing and advertising, plus an annual boost from population growth.

Click to enlargeSmuckers: Courtesy of Smuckers; Snee: Courtesy of Hormel; Ettinger: Ackerman + Gruber; Dean Foods: Courtesy of Dean Foods; Quincey: Courtesy of Coca-Cola; Leigh Vogel—Getty Images; Van de Put: Mccain Foods/Reuters; Rosenfeld: Paul Morigi—Getty Images
Smuckers: Courtesy of Smuckers; Snee: Courtesy of Hormel; Ettinger: Ackerman + Gruber; Dean Foods: Courtesy of Dean Foods; Quincey: Courtesy of Coca-Cola; Leigh Vogel—Getty Images; Van de Put: Mccain Foods/Reuters; Rosenfeld: Paul Morigi—Getty Images

But over the past decade, this “historically safe, stable insular industry,” as Howard deems it, became much less so. For one thing, shoppers started avoiding the center of the supermarket, eschewing the canned and boxed offerings—and the artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives inside them—in favor of the perimeter’s fresh fare. Consumers, and in particular those coveted millennials, wanted what they considered natural goods. No matter what Big Food does to reengineer its products, they can’t seem to convince shoppers that anything has changed. “Consumers have lost trust in legacy food products,” says Howard. “As a result we’re seeing big packaged-food companies attacked from all sides.”

Click to enlargeClouse: Courtesy of Pinnacle; Gamgort: Brendan McDermid—Reuters; Hayes: Courtesy of Tyson Foods; Smith: Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images; Buck: Courtesy of Hershey; Bilbrey: Lucas Jackson—Reuters; Harmening: Denis Balibouse—Reuters; Powell: Richard Drew—AP; Schneider: Denis Balibouse—Reuters; Bulcke: Pierre Albouy—Reuters
Clouse: Courtesy of Pinnacle; Gamgort: Brendan McDermid—Reuters; Hayes: Courtesy of Tyson Foods; Smith: Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images; Buck: Courtesy of Hershey; Bilbrey: Lucas Jackson—Reuters; Harmening: Denis Balibouse—Reuters; Powell: Richard Drew—AP; Schneider: Denis Balibouse—Reuters; Bulcke: Pierre Albouy—Reuters

If one side of the battle is what’s in Big Food’s products, the other is how they’re being sold. To compete with the aggressive expansion of discounters in the U.S. like German entrants Aldi and Lidl, supermarkets have pressured their suppliers to slash prices. Walmart and Amazon are following the same playbook as they face off in a battle over the future of retail. Amazon further upped the ante—and the sleepless nights for Big Food CEOs—when it acquired Whole Foods this summer for $13.7 billion. It promptly slashed prices on key items the day the deal closed. This has all left legacy CEOs with some dire choices. “You have to reshape the portfolio,” says Boston Consulting’s Brennan, “or you’re going to die.”

The only thing more worrisome to Big Food CEOs than consumers’ new penchant for green juice is 3G Capital. The Brazilian private equity group is the specter looming over the industry.

When 3G acquired Heinz and subsequently merged it with Kraft, it immediately implemented what Fortune’s Geoff Colvin has described in these pages as a “blitzkrieg of cost cutting.” Kraft Heinz now has the highest margins among its Big Food brethren, proving to some that management teams should be able to increase earnings despite the sector’s intense pressures. “Companies have been on edge ever since,” says Andrew Hayes of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. “They’re concerned that they might be the next victim and have tried to 3G themselves to preempt it.” The $58 billion Unilever found itself in the eye of the 3G storm when Kraft Heinz made an unsolicited bid for the Anglo-Dutch company in February. Though Unilever’s board roundly rejected the overture, the company did later move to cut spending and improve profitability. But in the packaged-goods realm, the Brazilian threat remains. 3G is “able to cut costs in a very unemotional and clinical way,” explains food industry veteran Alan Murray, who has operated in both the Big Food and startup worlds. Since much of the industry’s management has come up through the ranks, “they cannot cut as brutally,” he says.

If legacy food companies don’t adopt the 3G model themselves, activist investors have shown they will do what they have to in order to force the company’s hand. Nelson Peltz’s Trian has agitated for change over the years at Cadbury, Heinz, PepsiCo, Danone, and Mondelez, where Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square has also held a stake. Jana Partners pushed for a shake up at Whole Foods, which led the grocer to its deal with Amazon. Meanwhile Daniel Loeb’s Third Point recently disclosed a stake in Nestlé. “There is no quadrant or zip code in the industry that’s off-limits to activists,” says Garfield of AlixPartners. Even the biggest companies with the most cherished brands are now fair game.

Amid this backdrop some CEOs were no doubt encouraged by their boards to leave early, industry veterans say. Tyson, for example, had signaled that Tom Hayes would likely succeed longtime CEO Donnie Smith, but the Wall Street Journal reported that the transition was “expedited partly because of the dimmer outlook on profit.” (Tyson vehemently denies this characterization, saying in a statement that the decision “had nothing to do with the company’s profit outlook, which was very positive. When his departure was announced, Tyson Foods had just completed a record year, and we were projecting a record fiscal 2017, which we’re on track to attain.”)

But others may simply have been worn out. Rosenfeld, who had to deal with two activist investors at Mondelez, told Fortune twice in an interview upon the announcement of her retirement that she was happy to say goodbye to the nonstop nature of the job: “I won’t miss the 24/7 fires that have to be fought.” “It’s getting a lot harder,” says Stonyfield chairman Gary Hirshberg, whose company was sold by Danone in August to French dairy Lactalis. “They’re not just getting forced out. They’re tired. It’s not an easy business now.” Murray says he was working with a public company CEO who had one request: “He said, ‘Al, this is not fun anymore. Get me out of here. Get me out of here elegantly.’ ”

So who could boards possibly select to fill these increasingly challenging roles? It turns out they look a lot like their predecessors. Several executive search firms said that while boards are being more rigorous in their search process, they are still for the most part selecting insiders. “What surprises me is the board is putting in people who are part of the existing management team, who will not depart radically from the pre-existing strategy,” says Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow. Take Coca-Cola’s James Quincey and General Mills’ Jeffrey Harmening, who both were at their companies for more than 20 years before taking the top job. Some companies are “comfortable with somebody who grew up in their culture who is going to be very loyal and careful,” says Hirshberg. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be the best engine of growth.”

A few companies have broken the mold. The selection of Hayes, who joined Tyson in 2014 through its acquisition of Hillshire Brands, was considered more radical than going with a company lifer. Mondelez surprised industry watchers with its pick of Dirk Van de Put, CEO of Canadian frozen french-fry company McCain Foods. And Nestlé’s new CEO, an outsider and health care executive, was considered a shocking and bold choice.

The industry, however, is still thinking mostly inside the box. “If we compare Big Food to retail, retail is a sector that’s on fire, and it’s burning. Therefore they’re bringing in people from the outside who can really take a different view,” says Greg Portell, lead partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney. Howard Schultz of Starbucks, which hasn’t even suffered close to the trials of the rest of the industry, hand-picked tech veteran Kevin Johnson to replace him. “I think I had my own private moment of realizing I honestly believed that Kevin would be better suited to run the future of Starbucks than myself,” Schultz told me this spring.

This new batch of CEOs may want to prepare itself for a shorter tenure at the top. “The pace of change is increasing so much,” says Gaurav ­Gupta of strategy firm Kotter International. “What business needs today and five years from now are going to be dramatically different.” Murray believes that will lead to a second wave of CEO turnover in which the next generation isn’t made quite so much in the same mold. “The 60-year-old guy passes the baton to the 50-year-old guy who’s grown up at the same school. Can he effect the changes that need to take place?” he posits. “The patience is now much shorter.”

When that second wave comes, there’s concern there won’t be the talent to fill it. The Big Food slump has made the industry’s companies far less sexy for graduating MBAs. They’ll no longer be the innovative place to go. And even worse, this new crop of young guns might not even be interested in their food.

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