Turnaround Tips From Comeback King Doug Conant, Fmr. Campbells CEO

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No stranger to overcoming adversity, Doug Conant is best known for stepping in to save Campbell’s, the nation’s iconic soup company, from seemingly certain demise. But he also played a significant role helping post-LBO Nabisco regroup and surmounted his share of personal setbacks during a career that spanned stints at consumer packaged good companies General Mills and Kraft. Chief Executive recently had the opportunity to talk with Conant about tactics and tips he’s amassed over the course of his action-packed career. Excerpts of that conversation follow.

Before Campbell’s, you were at Nabisco in the aftermath of the leveraged buyout made famous by Barbarians at the Gate. In that high-pressure environment, how did you go about getting the right people on the bus?

There were five pieces to that proposition. First, you need to attract the right people. Then, you need to develop them. You need to get them engaged in the work. You need to leverage them so they work more as a team, and you need to retain them so you can harvest all the investment you make in them. But it starts with attracting. We found we could create a special sense of mission, if you will, of trying to turn around the world’s largest LBO with a bunch of Young Turks.

So, we tended to go after people who were ready to be promoted and hungry for more responsibility but sort of bogged down in their blue-chip consumer packaged goods companies. We created this sense of doing something special and making an extraordinary foods company again. Between reaching down to get the talent and giving them an opportunity to contribute at a higher level with a great sense of mission, we were able to invite and cajole a team in that just shot the lights out. Of my direct reports there, I wanna say probably 80 percent of them went on to be CEO somewhere in meaningful jobs.

You don’t typically hear people celebrating the cultures created when private equity companies take over organizations and pile a bunch of debt on. What are the keys to being able to pull that off?

If you look at it from 30,000 feet, three key things had to come together. We needed people who were highly competent in what they did. They had to have a track record of accomplishment that was second to none. And then they had to have demonstrated character, where you could take it to the bank that when they committed to doing something, it would happen. So, there’s competence, character and the third C is chemistry.

And embedded in that chemistry were some common values. Once we had thoroughly assessed the candidate for those things, our batting average was very high. And one other thing: You get a few stars, and stars attract stars. So, once we got four or five real blue-chip athletes, it became even easier.

With all this technology-led disruption happening, do you look for different qualities than you did 15-20 years ago?

The situation has changed but people haven’t. If you’re gonna become a trusted leader of an organization, you’ve got to know what you’re doing, you’ve got to be competent and you’ve got to have character. You’ve got to do what you say you’re gonna do, and you have to be good with the chemistry within the organization. You have to play well with others.

Whether I’m talking to somebody at Google or someone at a 125-year-old company, those conditions still have to be met. There are nuance changes, but people are still people. Followers need to have trust and confidence in their leaders. And if a leader wants to inspire trust, they have to be people of good character who know what they’re doing and do it well with others. That hasn’t changed.

After Nabisco, you were recruited to Campbell’s and once again thrown into a firestorm.

I thought I’d seen it all after Nabisco…. then I got to Campbell’s and found a whole new level of discontent. Everyone had a friend to the left or the right of them who had been let go, and the company was headquartered in the poorest, most dangerous city in the U.S.—Camden, New Jersey, with 75,000 people and 70 murders a year. We were also an old-economy canned soup company, and the analysts were comparing us to a buggy whip, which was not wrong.

The good news was I had a plan…. I interviewed with six directors at once for the Campbell’s job. It was like a firing line where they were just shooting questions at me. I thought, “Well, this is a disaster.” Two days later, I got a call, and they said, “That went great. We wanna do it again.’’ I thought, “There’s no way I’m gonna do this again.” So, I got some of my friends together, we studied all the available information and put together a transformation plan. When I went in and they started shooting questions at me again, I pulled out a PowerPoint presentation and said, ‘’Frankly, you asked me a lot of questions last time, and I didn’t have a chance to thoughtfully respond to all of them. I think this will help.’’

I took them through how the challenge should be approached, the kind of things we ought consider doing. After that, I received an offer. I think you need to have a plan, knowing that it will have to evolve and change, before you go into any of these situations. These challenges today are too big and complex. If you don’t have a framework for navigating them, the odds are you won’t do it well.