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Denise Morrison, who for much of her seven years as CEO of Campbell Soup tried to revive sales by investing in fresh foods, convenience products and healthier brands, unexpectedly resigned on Friday as the company said it expects 2018 earnings to be down between five and six percent.

Morrison had been with Campbell since 2003, when she joined the company as president-global sales and chief customer officer, after a career that started at Procter & Gamble and stops at Nestle, Nabisco and Kraft.

Keith McLoughlin, the former CEO of Electrolux who has served on Campbell’s board since 2016, will replace Morrison on an interim basis until a permanent replacement can be identified and hired.

In a conference call on Friday, McLoughlin said that the company would embark on a head-to-toe analysis and reassessment of its various businesses: “We must take a fresh look...with urgency … everything is on the table. There are no sacred cows.” And, he added, “Our company has clearly faced challenges. Some of those are external factors that are impacting the entire industry and others stem from our execution.”

In its analysis, the Wall Street Journal writes: “Like other American packaged-food mainstays, Campbell’s has been under intense pressure to satisfy customers seeking healthier and more convenient foods. Beyond soup, Campbell’s makes Pepperidge Farm cookies, V8 juices, SpaghettiOs and more.

“Companies like Campbell, Kellogg Co. and General Mills Inc. that provided safe, affordable food for decades are being squeezed on one end by higher-end, trendier brands and on the other by cheaper store brands that grocers have added aggressively in recent years.”

Under Morrison’s leadership - the Journal writes that she “was acutely aware of what she often called a ‘seismic shift’ in the way people are eating” and was “determined to win over millennials and transform Campbell into a broader ‘health and well being’ company” - Campbell acquired brands that included Bolthouse Farms, Plum Organics, Garden Fresh Gourmet, Pacific Foods organic soups, and Snyder’s-Lance.

However, these bets did not pay off as quickly as Morrison may have expected or, in the end, needed.

In addition, Campbell’s flagship brand ran into a sales buzzsaw when it had a dispute with Walmart over promotional pricing; since Walmart generated roughly 20 percent of the company’s overall sales, that proved to be a problem for an extended period.

And, Campbell also found itself in a dispute with the Trump administration, when it complained that new tariffs on steel and aluminum would result in double digit cost increases. The administration argued that the tariffs would cost the company ab out a penny per can, and that its troubles could not be blamed on the new tariffs.

The Financial Times writes that Campbell was just one of several CPG companies to change CEOs recently; the others include Kellogg, General Mills, Hershey and Mondelez.

“In the case of New Jersey-based Campbell, the company has been wrestling with declining demand for its flagship canned soups amid a consumer flight for fresher and healthier alternatives,” FT writes. “It has also been hit by the rise of value-driven grocery chains such as Aldi and Lidl, which makes it cheaper to cook at home, as well as increasing competition from cheaper private-label goods.”

In its second-day story, the New York Times writes that in the wake of Morrison’s departure, “there are now just 23 female chief executives running publicly traded companies on the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. That is 4.6 percent of the total, a figure that edged above 5 percent for the first time last year. Those who remain include Mary Barra at General Motors, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo and Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin.”

The Times goes on: “Research has found that while female executives are much less likely than male executives to become the ultimate boss, they are more likely than men to do so if they stay on the management path for many years. Yet women are pushed out or leave at every stage along the way. At companies in the S.&P. 500, 45 percent of employees are women, but just 37 percent of midlevel managers and 27 percent of senior managers are women, according to Catalyst.”
KC's View:
I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that Denise Morrison would argue that the change at the top of Campbell Soup has less to do with gender and more to do with board and investor impatience for results.

I’m reminded of a line from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth:

If t'were be done, t'were well it be done quickly.

That’s true in many things, especially the assassination of a king, which is what Shakespeare was writing about. But as much as one would like things to go faster when it comes to corporate overhauls, that’s rarely the case.

At Campbell, Morrison needed to change the company’s focus even while tending to its traditional red-and-white can business. That’s hard to do.

I tend to think that Morrison was making the hard decisions and moving the company in the right direction if the goal was to keep it both big and relevant. Now, it seems possible that much of her work could be dismantled, and it will be instructive to see how it all turns out.