Campbell Soup CEO: 'You can lead the change or be a victim of change'
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) She started honing her business skills when she was child, and she grew up to help shape an industry that faces a significant shift in what its customers want. Now Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, is tasked with pushing a century-old brand to be a tastemaker rather than trend follower.
"The world of marketing has changed. You can lead the change or be a victim of change," said Morrison as she gave the opening keynote at the Net Impact sustainability conference in Silicon Valley on Thursday night.
From peach salsa to solar power to tips on inspiring changes, Morrison emphasized the company's mission at the Net Impact Conference, which brings leaders in the business, government, non-profit and academic worlds to promote social and environmental causes.
Morrison, one of the only 21 women to lead a Fortune 500 company, became CEO of Campbell Soup in August 2011, after working at the company for more than eight years. She quickly made sustainability a key element of her platform.
"The things that worked for us in the past wasn't going to work the same way going forward," Morrison said. "I used the phrase, 'Build on the past to build on the future' to start a rally."
The 144-year-old company with an iconic red and white soup can design has won recognition for its efforts to reduce wastes and carbon footprint, cut childhood obesity cases and feed the hungry.
It has been snapping up companies that make food and drinks that tout their wholesome ingredients. The $1.55bn purchase of Bolthouse Farms last year was the largest acquisition in the company's history.
Campbell also has come up with new soup flavors and packaging that it hopes will appeal to the younger, so-called Millennial generation. Driving many of these initiatives is the need to figure out new ways of growing business as consumers' palates change, and as public want for socially responsible food conglomerates grows.
Campbell has struggled to bolster its soup sales and, with the acquisitions of baby food maker Plum Organic and cookie producer Kelsen, expects the sale of its once dominant product to account for a smaller portion of its revenues going forward.
Morrison noted the need to pay attention to the greater mix of ethnic groups that make up their intended customers and how the internet is shaping public taste by giving consumers access to new and unusual food.
Campbell also has joined the fight against hunger and childhood obesity, she said. Morrison recounted the company's effort last year to work with the Food Bank of New Jersey to turn a batch of blemished – but otherwise edible peaches – from local farms into something that the food bank could sell to raise money.
With donated ingredients and jars ("They strung together a whole pro bono supply chain," Morrison said), Campbell's employees volunteered their time to make peach salsa out of them, put the salsa in jars and labeled the products.
"For us, giving back is not an extracurricular activity," Morrison said.
It was an unusual collaboration because food banks don't usually get products especially made for their fundraisers. At the same time, the effort presented a good solution for making use of fruits and vegetables that didn't meet the size and beauty requirements of supermarket shelves – or even those of canned goods – and would otherwise be destined for the landfill.
The company also has incorporated clean energy into some of its operations. It built a 9.8-megawatt solar farm on 60 acres for its production plant in Napoleon, Ohio, in 2012, a project that now generates 15% of the plant's electricity needs.
Much of Morrison's talk also centered around her path to become the leader of a large public company and how she promotes changes effectively. Morrison grew up in what she described as a "high-achieving family" in which her father instilled business skills in her and her sisters. Her sister, Maggie Wilderotter, is the CEO of Frontier Communications and also earned the distinction of being among the women who lead a Fortune 500 company.
"He had a vision that the world would open up to women, and he wanted us to be ready for it," said Morrison, who has worked at Pepsi-Cola, Nabisco, Nestle and Proctor & Gamble. "I had to have a business plan to get my ears pierced."
She listed some of the must-do's for an effective leader: have a strong sense of self and mission; hold people accountable; and demonstrate the risks and personal involvement you are willing to take along with your staff. She is also a fan of creating small internal teams of people from various divisions to study consumer trends and behaviors and come up with new ideas.
"What people look for in their leaders is authenticity," she said. "You say I'm not going to ask you to do anything that I'm not going to do myself."
Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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