The reinvention of an icon

Campbell Soup Company

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When Denise Morrison took over Campbell, the 144-year-old business faced an uncertain future with changing customer tastes. But the company’s first female CEO found a way to make soup hot again. 

What is the recipe for successful leadership of a company with a market cap of more than US$14b? 

In the case of Denise Morrison, President and Chief Executive Officer of Campbell Soup Company, it is a huge stock of passion, roots in family values, the perfect blend of people, a dash of lofty goals and a large measure of delivering results. 

Morrison, who is only the 12th Chief Executive in Campbell’s 144-year history and the first woman to lead the iconic company, took the helm in August 2011. She is one of only 20 women CEOs of a Fortune 500 company and was named the 81st most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2013. 

A new generation of consumers

Morrison and her leadership team confronted the hard facts facing Campbell. Due to changing consumer tastes and trends, core soup sales and profits were down. International growth had stalled. New products were failing to address key emerging demographics. And the stock price, sales and earnings per share were flat. 

It was only by making such a dispassionate assessment that Campbell could emerge with a new strategic vision: the company would stabilize and profitably grow soup sales in North America, expand overseas and continue to drive sales in healthy beverages and baked snacks. 

With 70% of the growth in the food industry predicted to come from global emerging markets, Morrison recognized that future opportunities came wrapped in a historical dilemma: how to invigorate a successful, iconic company so it could meet the realities of a global marketplace. 

“We need to respect the past and be inspired by it, but not be stuck in it.”

“Campbell has always put the consumer first, so that was baked into our DNA. Today, the key is getting our people to understand the importance of innovation to the future of our company,” Morrison says. 

Working with IDEO, the Palo Alto innovation company, Morrison observed innovative firms and was impressed by their nimble, team-based approach. Seizing the moment, she acted quickly, creating similar cross-functional teams, charged with bringing exciting food for the next generation of consumers to market. 

The innovation teams immediately began reinventing the product development process, which fostered new ideas such as the easy-to-prepare Campbell’s Go soup line. 

These days, new products are beginning to reflect the influence of global cuisines: not only Campbell’s Go soups, but also chef-inspired Campbell’s Skillet Sauces and new varieties of Campbell’s Chunky soups. 

The leadership journey

Since childhood, Morrison has been studying leaders and grooming herself for a top job. For her, it is a long-term process. 

“Leadership is a journey. It’s never something you complete,” she stresses. “I find that I am a continuous learner. I love to observe people in leadership positions and study the characteristics of good leadership.” 

As a wife, daughter of aging parents, mother of two daughters and now a grandmother, Morrison is an adept juggler, as she walks the tightrope of career and family. Promoting the concept of work-life integration, Morrison says her challenge is to balance the academic, spiritual and physical elements of life. 

For Morrison, what matters most as a corporate leader is her commitment to people, both within the company and with her consumers. 

“My idea of leadership of this company is to unleash the potential of our people to do amazing things,” she says. “I believe if you do that — and you maintain an unrelenting focus on the consumer — profits will follow.” 

New Campbell, new era

In the ever-changing, frenetic global marketplace, Morrison assigns great importance to being nimble.

However, while Campbell has always been a solid company with good earnings, being nimble didn’t come naturally. With Morrison’s arrival, that changed. 

The breakthrough teams are an example of agility. When Morrison came on board as CEO, it took two years to bring a new product to market. Now, it takes about half the time and welcomes more consumer input than ever before. 

While Campbell has always had pockets of agility within the company, the immediate task was to bring that agility to soups and simple meals, another highly successful product line that was in need of refreshing. 

To expand into faster-growing spaces, Morrison made the strategic decision to shift Campbell’s center of gravity. One such decision was the acquisition of Bolthouse Farms, an innovative producer of fresh carrots and superpremium fresh beverages. 

Internationally, Campbell will focus on Latin America and Asia, with growth coming from acquisitions as well as partnerships, such as the ones it recently created in Mexico with a beverage business and in China, to help distribute its product more efficiently. 

Morrison also recognized how the influence of digital was changing consumer conversations, so she hired the company’s first chief marketing officer. One of Campbell’s first forays into digital was a contest to create mobile apps that help consumers with mealtime solutions. The company plans to bring the most exciting of these mealtime apps to market this fall to kick off soup season. 

In fact, the company brought more than 100 new products to market last year across all of its brands, including Pepperidge Farm and V8 beverages, and will launch over 200 new products this year.  Bolthouse Farms has added fresh foods and more innovative beverages, which extends Campbell’s supermarket reach to the higher-margin retail perimeter and complements its competence in vegetable nutrition. 

Morrison has been repeatedly recognized for her achievements in corporate America and for her extensive community service. But, in the end, she has her own view of what has made her so successful. “It’s passion, it’s ambition, it’s lofty goals and it’s delivering results.”