[caption id="attachment_1204" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Denise Morrison, Executive VP, COO, Campbell Soup"][/caption]
When I first heard Denise Morrison and Doug Conant speak at the WomenCorporateDirectors Global Institute in New York City in May, I was impressed with the story they told. And it didn’t have to do so much with Morrison becoming the first female CEO of Campbell Soup Company, but rather one of the smoothest succession plans I have ever seen.
Morrison, 57, who has led the nearly $8 billion company’s North America Soup, Sauces and Beverages unit since 2007, will take over as president and CEO on Aug. 1. She will replace Conant, who has the led the company the last 10 years. Conant – a long-time veteran of food companies such as General Mills, Kraft and Nabisco – had planned for his retirement for some time and began thinking about succession shortly after becoming CEO in 2001. A serious automobile accident in 2009 reminded him of the importance of a good succession plan to a large company like Campbell.
While Conant was able to return to work shortly after the accident, he knew the company and the board had to complete the succession plan. At the Global Institute, Conant said early on his tenure he had the challenge of improving sagging revenues and employee engagement. Under Conant, the company has made significant investments to improve product quality and packaging, strengthen the effectiveness of its marketing programs, and develop an innovation pipeline. Campbell also improved its financial profile, enhanced its relationships with its customers, and consistently improved its employee engagement through investments in its organization.
“As CEO, you better plan once you get there,” he told the Global Institute audience. “You want to leave the company in better shape than you got it.”
Morrison, the eldest of four daughters of an AT&T executive father from New Jersey, began her career in sales at Procter & Gamble, then went on to work in trade and business development for Pepsi-Cola. She moved on to senior marketing and sales positions for Nestle in the 1980s before landing at Nabisco in 1995 as senior vice president and head of the company’s sales organization and general manager of the Down the Street division. It was at Nabisco where she first met Conant.
She joined Campbell Soup in 2003 as president of global sales and chief customer officer before becoming president of Campbell USA in 2005. As part of her transition to president and CEO of Campbell, she was elevated to executive vice president and COO in October 2010 and earned a seat on the board. At the same time, she named a management team, which included the elevation of four key managers.
She also served as a director of Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Ballard Power Systems.
One of the things she is most proud of is her work with Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership. Morrison has been named to Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” list. As part of that honor, she has been part of a group of 35 women leaders “who give back to future business leaders.”
Recently, Morrison spent some time discussing the Campbell Soup succession plan and her thoughts on mentoring the next generation of women leaders. The following is that conversation:
Back in May, you and Douglas Conant spoke to the Women’s Corporate Directors first Global Institute in New York City about the succession planning process at Campbell Soup, which will leave you in charge of the company on Aug. 1. What would you say has been the key to such a smooth transition at a major U.S. company?
I think the key to the transition is that Doug and I have an enormous trust for each other. We look at the situation as balancing continuity and change. The transition has gone very smoothly. At the outset, we sat down and discussed the things I would focus on and the things Doug would focus on. That moment paved the way for a seamless transition. It's critical to clarify roles in any leadership transition. Since October, I’ve been focused on leading the businesses and on developing the strategic direction for Campbell’s future growth.
Can you describe this particular succession plan from the time you were being considered for the top spot until now? What do you think makes for a solid succession plan?
The process was led by the board. The Campbell board takes talent management and succession very seriously, and discusses it regularly. Selecting a CEO is one of the most important responsibilities a board has. I would characterize it as a world-class process. I think the directors were thorough as they considered the skills for the next CEO. Since being named COO, we‘ve managed the transition very well. Doug and I shared some responsibilities, and we agreed in advance on where each of us would focus..
What made you want to work at Campbell?
I’ve been in the food business for 35 years. Before joining Campbell, my most recent assignment was Kraft/Nabisco. What attracted me to Campbell was that I worked with Doug [at Nabisco]. I ran their confections and snacks divisions. Then at one point I decided I was going to look at some other options [outside Kraft] and Doug was interested and it was a great opportunity to help transform a company with great brands, great people and a strong financial profile. Those were the things that motivated me to join Campbell as chief customer officer.
Back in October of 2010, you named some people to your management team, nearly a year before you were to take over. Was this part of the succession plan and if so, why?
It was part of the succession plan. We have a very disciplined ORP (organizational resource planning). We do a formal succession plan for executives throughout the company. That speaks to the culture of Campbell’s. We are constantly preparing our people to be the next leaders.
Doug mentioned a program called the CEO Institute at Campbell that grooms the next generation of leaders. Were you in this program? If so, can you tell me a little about it?
I feel I’ve been in the program for 15 years with Doug (laughter). However, I was not in the program. It was designed for people at the director and VP levels as a way to improve their leadership skills. The participants are typically at a point in their careers where they are very receptive to improving their leadership skills. I’ve participated in the CEO Institute by teaching part of the program.
You mentioned at the Women’s Corporate Director Institute that you always believed that if you worked hard, you would get promoted as if it were a rite of passage. But then you mentioned that isn’t always that way and that relationships and experiences play a bigger part. As a woman, did you find it more difficult to deal with “climbing the ladder?”
I do believe it’s a combination of both working hard and developing relationships. You need to work hard to deliver results and work to relationships with people. I do believe hard work and people skills play a big part in advancing a career. .
What is your motto for being a great CEO and building a great company in today’s environment where there is more pressure to please shareholders, worry about regulations and survive in a globalized world?
Connect with consumers and deliver for them.’ If you start with the consumer in mind, you make decisions that get the maximum value for the company.
Are there any specific goals you have for making Campbell Soup the best that it can be?
I’ve been working with my new team on a strategy with the board of directors. We’ll present our strategy on July 12 at your annual analyst meeting.
While your transition to the CEO/President positions has been quite transparent, what kind of succession plan do you foresee for your successor?
I have to get the job first (laughter). I will start a succession plan on Aug. 1. You always have to think about who is going to run the company after you.
Who was your mentor as you became a C-level executive and do you have any protégés you may be grooming?
I don’t see mentoring as a singular [thing]. I call what I have a mentoring network. I built it when I was at the operations level and continue to build it at the C-level. I will continue to seek mentoring opportunities where it applies and to give back as well.
My first mentor was my dad. He was an executive at AT&T. He got me and my sisters [Maggie Wilderotter, chair and CEO of Frontier Communications; Colleen Bastkowski, regional VP of sales at Expedia Corporate Travel; Andrea Doelling, former senior vice president of sales at AT&T Wireless] acclimated to business at a very young age. Our love for business comes from him.
It’s very important to mentor young leaders, both male and female, coming up. I’m involved in mentoring people outside Campbell through a program called W-O-M-E-N in America run through Fortune magazine and the U.S. State Department. I feel I‘ve been passing along the knowledge I received to these young women and helping them succeed in business. This has been an amazing experience. One woman thought she had to leave her company to go to school for an MBA. I encouraged her to have a dialogue with her manager about tuition reimbursement. The outcome was extremely positive.
Gary Larkin is a research associate in the corporate leadership department at The Conference Board in New York. His research focuses on corporate governance, including succession planning, board compo…