The Midas Touch
by Dan Malovany
Stuck in a dead-end job with nowhere to go? Give me a call.    Three years ago, we selected Denise Morrison, head of Kraft’s snack division as our Executive of the Year. Shortly after the article was printed, she left to become Campbell Soup’s president of global sales and chief customer officer.
Last year, the award went to Mark Sarvary, president of Pepperidge Farm. Before the ink dried on the magazine, he was promoted to president of Campbell Soup North America. Basically, he became Pepperidge’s boss.
This year, we selected Richard Noll, CEO of the Sara Lee Bakery Group (SLBG) as our top executive, and you guessed it. While driving to work, I heard that Sara Lee Corp. was restructuring. After screaming something like “Funk-ee!” I called the bakery group and sure enough, Noll is moving on to turn around the struggling apparel division, which Sara Lee is spinning off as an independent company. He remains at SLBG until the company’s fiscal year ends in June.
Actually, we selected Noll and the SLBG management team because of the great job they did turning around the bakery group.
Admittedly, I didn’t always think it would work out that way. It’s probably no shock to you, but my first impressions about Noll were wrong. Three years ago, when he joined the organization, I thought, “What does this guy know about the baking industry?”
You see, Noll had spent the last decade working for Sara Lee’s apparel division. “What does a guy who’s selling underwear know about bakery products?” I thought. Of course, being the bonehead that I am, I couldn’t get my facts straight. He served as CEO of Sara Lee Legware, direct and Mexico. He joined Sara Lee in 1992 as the chief of its U.S. socks business. Still, I thought, “What does he know about the baking industry?”
Well, back in March 2003 when everyone was debating whether the low-carb craze was a fad or a trend, he was beating the drum about whole grains, whole wheat and multi-grain breads. That’s where the long-term growth is, he told analysts. That’s the future for the industry.
Okay, maybe he knew a little bit about the baking industry. Later, when the company rolled out the Delightful low-carb and low-calorie bread, dumb ol’ me thought, “That sounds like a name for women’s underwear.” Of course, extensive consumer research proved stupid me wrong again.
Then, when he talked about slashing the number of brands, eliminating unprofitable private-label products and taking advantage of the power of the Sara Lee name, I thought, “Good luck. I heard this brand-building blather plenty of time.”
Well, the management team has reduced the complexity of the business, built the quality of revenue, shifted toward more branded products, and made the Sara Lee name a fixture in the bread aisle in two years.
Noll noted that he’s been in a number of turnaround situations. In those situations, he says, “You need to have a long-term vision and a long-term strategy. You then need to communicate what that strategy is, and why that strategy makes sense to the organization, and then you need to stay the course, build a top-quality management group that relentlessly pursues executing that strategy every single day and doesn’t get sidetracked by fads.”
Well, if I had half a brain, I should have been able to read between the lines and connect the dots. That’s why he’s moving on. Still, for the work they have done, congratulations to Noll and the SLBG management team for righting the ship and for your success so far.
Yes, Sports Illustrated has its curse. Well, we sort of have an SF&WB magic touch.
Need a better job? Give me a call.