Activist Investors Strike Again: Rosenfeld out at Mondelez

Irene Rosenfeld at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference

Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld’s recent ouster by activist investors not only illustrates some instability in the packaged snack food industry, but also marks the removal of one of the few female Fortune 500 CEOs.

For CEOs, it bears watching whether her replacement will be able to keep the activists at bay in the rapidly shifting world of packaged foods, and follows the trend that female CEOs are more likely to be replaced by men.

Rosenfeld announced she will be stepping down in November and will be replaced by Dirk Van de Put, who has served as CEO of McCain Foods since 2011. He also will join the Mondelez board of directors, and will take over as chairman when Rosenfeld steps aside from that role on March 31, 2018.

Rosenfeld, who served as Kraft CEO before Mondelez split from the company in 2011, has been viewed as a dynamic and a strong leader who was successful at driving business growth, meeting or exceeding Wall Street expectations, and defending herself and her organizations from activists. After Mondelez split from Kraft with Rosenfeld staying on as CEO, criticism from activist shareholders Nelson Peltz and Bill Ackman on what they viewed as lagging sales results spurred last week’s unanimous decision from the Mondelez board to replace Rosenfeld.

“DIRK VAN DE PUT is a seasoned global CEO, having lived and worked on three continents, with deep experience and expertise in all critical business and commercial operations in both emerging and developed markets.”

“The Board and I are confident that Dirk Van de Put is the right leader to take us forward,” Rosenfeld said in a statement announcing the move. “He is a seasoned global CEO, having lived and worked on three different continents, with deep experience and expertise in all critical business and commercial operations in both emerging and developed markets.”

Whether the former CEO of McCain Foods, the Canadian company that is among the world’s largest manufacturers of frozen French fries, appetizers and other potato products, will be the right choice to lead one of the world’s biggest packaged foods companies remains to be seen.

While McCain focuses mainly on direct distribution to restaurants, Mondelez relies primarily on business from consumers, with brands like Oreo cookies, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Cadbury chocolates, Trident and Dentyne chewing gums and Nabisco crackers under its umbrella.

During his six-year tenure as McCain CEO, Van de Put oversaw growth of net sales by more than 50% (with more than 75% of that growth generated organically), but will that experience be enough to ward off the investors who led the charge for Rosenfeld’s resignation in the long-term? Van de Put now must navigate the company through a list of obstacles such as an increasing public focus on eating healthier foods, not to mention dealing with the challenge of e-commerce.

The Mondelez board believes Van de Put will be more than up to the challenge, according to Mark Ketchum, lead independent director of Mondelez International.

“Our thorough, multi-year succession process has identified Dirk as the right leader with a distinct combination of skills and industry experience necessary to succeed as our next CEO,” Ketchum said. “Our process was global in nature and thoroughly considered numerous highly talented internal and external candidates before making our final decision.”

The move also has implications in the area of diversity among CEOs of top companies, as Rosenfeld was among a small group of female CEOs of top companies. According to Chief Executive and RHR International’s CEO1000 Tracker, a list of the top 1,000 public and private companies, 94% of these CEOs are men (940 male vs 60 female).

“It underscores just how truly exceptional it is for a woman CEO to be succeeded by another woman,” Brande Stellings said, senior vice president of advisory services at diversity tracking specialist Catalyst Inc. “Since we had the first woman CEO in the Fortune 500 in 1972, there’s only been 62 women CEOs in total, which is pretty staggering.”