Photo illustration by Gary Gantert
Photograph courtesy of the Campbell Soup Company
At Campbell Soup Company headquarters in Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the boardroom is unremarkable but for two paintings: a portrait of its innovative leader John T. Dorrance, who brought soup to the wider public more than a century ago, and a canvas silk-screen print of a can of tomato soup.
Andy Warhol's barely distinguishable thumbprint marks the upper right-hand corner of the original 3-foot-by-2-foot artwork. Campbell executives in the early 1960s were skeptical of the "rather unusual" pop artist's attraction to their soup cans.
Warhol colored the cans green, purple, pink and yellow. He depicted torn labels and crushed cans and stuffed them with dollar bills. But executives eventually embraced the artist, partly because he cherished their soups.
"I love it," Warhol said of Campbell's tomato soup in the corporation's official history, America's Favorite Food: The Story of Campbell Soup Company (Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994), adding that his mother used to serve it to him daily. "I just paint things I always thought were beautiful, things you use every day and never think about."
Like Warhol, Campbell is blessed with iconic status. The 136-year-old company evokes a warm casserole of memories for millions from preschoolers to great-grandparents.
By the late 1990s, however, the company was in deep trouble, with lagging sales and facing fierce competition. Takeover rumors abounded, and one Wall Street analyst even compared Campbell to a "buggy whip" for its relevance to consumers.
Enter Douglas R. Conant (WCAS73, KSM76), 53, who took over as president and chief executive officer in January 2001. He wants to leave more than a thumbprint on Campbell. Conant wants to leave a legacy: a vibrant, successful corporation for decades to come.
Conant came to Campbell from Nabisco Foods Co., where as president he earned a reputation as a "skillful marketer of timeworn brands," helping to revive Planters nuts and Life Savers.
"I knew the challenge (at Campbell ) was substantial. I still underestimated it," he says. Some analysts said if the new leadership turned Campbell around, "it will be the turnaround of the century in the food industry."
The business press wondered if Conant was the "mild-mannered executive" he appeared to be or the "revolutionary" he needed to be.
He might be both.
"Fundamentally, I've come to the point of view that life is very Darwinian when it comes to professional (or personal) growth — you either grow or die. As for myself and my organization, we will grow or die trying," Conant said in Stephen R. Covey's Living the 7 Habits: The Courage to Change (Simon & Schuster, 1999).
Conant honed his competitive juices as a scholarship tennis star at Northwestern under legendary coach Clarence "Clare" Riessen (SESP39). Conant toyed with the idea of turning pro but knew his limits. He did, however, end up at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. — not as a player but as a board member.
"He was a very heady tennis player," says Alan Schwartz, immediate past president of the United States Tennis Association, who worked with Conant when he was a young player. There were players who were faster and who had better strokes, Schwartz says, but Conant was more patient and "had the ability to use the entire court."
Conant put those skills to use as an assistant coach under Riessen during the 1974 season while earning a master's degree from the Kellogg School of Management. A marketing major, Conant says he was "blessed with a talented group" of professors that included Philip Kotler, Lou Stern and Ram Charan.
At Campbell, Conant set out revitalizing static sales by introducing soups aimed at today's on-the-go consumer (Soup at Hand, microwavable bowls), boosting morale among 24,000 employees worldwide, recruiting and promoting nearly 200 of the company's top 300 executives, upgrading plants and products, improving store displays and bolstering marketing, focusing on younger consumers and purchasing top European dry soup brands.
In the process Conant gave shareholders — and retirees — hope that its stock price would rebound after losing 60 percent of its value in recent years. (Dorrance family heirs still own 52 percent of the company.)
"Man, I just don't want to let anybody down," says Conant, sounding much more like Jimmy Stewart than Donald Trump.
"The results have been impressive," wrote a Morningstar analyst in a December report. "We think the worst is over for Campbell."
In the fourth year of a campaign to quell gradually declining soup sales, Campbell reported a nearly 10 percent increase in sales to $2.09 billion, up from $1.9 billion a year ago.
A New Breed of CEO
In a two-hour interview in late November in his office filled with books (he gives them away regularly), sports collectibles and family portraits, the trim 6-foot-2-inch Conant still looks like he's ready to hit the courts.
Clearly, Conant is on a mission, saying he feels an "awesome responsibility" to the company and "to the people that were here before me and to the people that are going to be here after me."
Never heard of Doug Conant? That bodes well for Campbell.
Management experts have become leery of celebrity CEOs and praise those compiling stellar records out of the limelight. Author Jim Collins (Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. and Others Don't [Harper Business, 2001]) calls these publicity-shy leaders "Level 5" executives.
They are highly skilled, extremely competitive and share many qualities common to merely "good" CEOs. "Great" executives are genetically different: They exude humility and do not think business ethics is an oxymoron. They are team-oriented and disdain corporate politics.
"The Level 5 executive is somebody who's very reflective," says Richard Cavanagh, president and CEO of the Conference Board in New York City," and whose ambitions are not for themselves but the institutions they serve."
Cavanagh says that typifies Conant, who serves as a board vice chair for the Conference Board, a global, independent membership organization that researches management and the marketplace to help businesses strengthen their performance and better serve society.
"He's the very model of a future CEO," says trend spotter and author Faith Popcorn, who once dropped by Conant's office on a casual Friday and found him reading "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. "Doug's a very spiritual person," she adds. "He's looking up, not down, to the bottom line."
"He's always marched to a different drummer," says James Mead of Wilton, Conn., president of a search firm for top executives. Even when Conant was a young executive, he would inspect a store by taking on the most menial tasks, such as cutting cases open and stocking products on the store shelves. Conant wanted to understand jobs from the workers' perspective, not his.
Once, in a speech at Kellogg, Conant admitted to a poor CEO profile: "I'm an introvert, and I can't play golf." Yet he is relaxed, persuasive and even funny as a public speaker. He leads by hard work, personal example and getting a first-rate team behind him, both inside and outside the company.
"It's all about learning. I aspire to do things I've never done before. I always have," says Conant, who adds he's a "voracious reader on leadership."
Creating Community in the Workplace
Just about every month, Conant runs across an article that basically says, "It's lonely at the top." He cannot relate. "The way you deal with that is to create your own community," he says. "If you don't create it, it won't be there."
Many CEOs have executive coaches. Conant retains an executive coach but also has a team full of coaches — many longtime friends — who keep him grounded.
He also credits Campbell's board with providing support. "They ask good questions," he says, "and expect good answers.
"One would have to be foolish to not talk to people who have done this already," he says, chuckling at the obvious. "I think it's just common sense."
In November 2004 several hundred Campbell employees, most casually dressed, packed the company cafeteria in a preholiday atmosphere to hear top executives report on first-quarter profits that were up 9 percent, exceeding Wall Street's expectations. Campbell employees also joined from more than 20 plant and office locations across the United States, Canada, Australia, Asia and Europe via teleconference. Conant and his executive leadership team have held similar meetings at the conclusion of each quarter since his arrival in January 2001.
First, Robert A. Schiffner, chief financial officer, details the quarter's financial results with a "what's working, what's not" review of Campbell 's global portfolio. During the quarter the big winners were Chunky Soups, Pepperidge Farm (bread, cookies, Goldfish), Prego pasta sauces and Godiva chocolates. Sales were weaker for Pace salsa, some other soups and U.S. beverages such as V8 Juices.
After a mouth-watering presentation by Godiva executives — before lunch, even — Conant takes the stage, all business in a gray suit, white shirt and red tie patterned with tiny penguins (note: global warming is not good for soup sales or penguins).
Conant encourages the assembled crowd, telling them that "the momentum is building, and it's been building over time. When we started this journey, our company was in the midst of losing 60 percent of its market value over a three-to-four-year period. Many of you experienced that loss. In the midst of that we made a lot of difficult decisions to get the company on solid footing again."
Those decisions, Conant says, are now being recognized and rewarded in the marketplace, as Campbell's market value has increased by $3.6 billion over a 24-month period.
Back in his office, it's clear there's still much more work — and reflecting — to be done.
Conant is a devotee of 7 Habits author Stephen Covey, down to the neatly typed and framed one-page "Personal Mission Statement," which he revises each year. But Conant also is a master of many contemporary leadership experts and is just as apt to read Abraham Lincoln or Sun Tzu (The Art of War).
In addition, Conant loves inspirational quotes. He talks of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("Happiness is not about outward things, but how we choose to view them.") and echoes theologian Teilhard de Chardin ("We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.").
It's all part of the balance in work and life.
"The core premise is what matters most must never be at the mercy of what matters least," he says. "Therefore, it's incumbent on you to do some really heavy lifting in terms of what matters most in your life."
When he has an orientation for executives, Conant promotes transparency and talks about his "five cylinders." He loves his work; family is "foundational"; his community, including volunteer work, is important; so is his faith; and he stresses his own personal well-being including "taking care of myself physically, emotionally and spiritually."
Conant adds, "I know when I start neglecting one or two or three of these areas. I know I'm headed for a fall because I know I can't sustain it."
North Shore Roots
Conant grew up in Glencoe, Ill., about 10 miles from Evanston, and graduated from New Trier High School. His father, Roger, now retired, started and led a successful plastic packaging company. His mother, Elsie, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University, stayed home to raise Doug and his three younger brothers.
Doug and his wife, S. Leigh Pierson Conant (C77), live in New Jersey, just outside New York City. They have two college-age sons, a daughter in high school, and two dogs and a cat.
His wife, Conant says, is "the single most important person in my life. We have a true partnership that is 24/7, 365 days of the year. A day doesn't go by that we are not communicating. That said, I never get enough time with her. ... I couldn't do what I do without her."
He's also proud of the family tree. A direct ancestor, also Roger Conant, in 1626 founded Salem, Mass. Another relative, James B. Conant, was president of Harvard University (1933-53).
The Conants belong to a Congregational church, and Doug and Leigh are active with the Seeing Eye Inc., which provides trained dogs to the sight impaired. Ken Rosenthal, president, says Doug, a board member, is not the "ever-talkative, ever-dominant person" and is interested most in the "people part of our program."
And, besides the Conference Board, Conant is an executive committee board member and strong supporter of Students in Free Enterprise, an international student group aimed at creating economic opportunities, especially in developing countries.
He has a full calendar, yes, but it's managed with an end in sight.
"This corporate journey, which is now going into year 30 with me, is more of a marathon than a sprint," he says. "I focus on what's important... I make sure I have time for it, and I manage my calendar accordingly. I may not have a lot of white space, but I make sure I have time for all five of those things (the cylinders) on a regular basis."
To that end, Conant takes "a day or two a year to go to the mountains of Utah or somewhere else. ... Where I've spent the most time is Sundance, by myself, (reflecting) on my personal mission, what's important, what's not."
The Importance of Failure
About 20 years ago Conant was living happily in the Boston area and running marketing for Parker Brothers, a former division of General Mills and the makers of Monopoly. Unfortunately General Mills decided to exit the toy and game business, and the unit was spun off. Conant's job was eliminated, and "I was told to be out of my office by lunchtime."
The experience was painful, but Conant received a lifetime "get-out-of-jail-FREE" card in the form of a wise outplacement counselor, Neil McKenna, now in his early 80s, and, after a year looking for work, he secured a position with Kraft Foods back in his hometown, Chicago.
The experience, in large part, shaped who he is today. He learned about the power of helping, and being helped. Before the firing, Conant kept his head down at work and did his job. Then, suddenly, he found himself jobless in a strange city and devoid of contacts. He learned to be proactive.
"I had every opportunity to feel bitter and frustrated and feel as if I were a victim," says Conant.
"The people who are succeeding in the corporate world are the people making choices and who are proactive in their lives," he says. "The people who are not succeeding are the people who are feeling that they're a victim of the environment and who are not making choices."
He also learned to network. He religiously wrote thank-you notes, usually within 24 hours of a job interview. He began to feel good about the search and himself. He's been writing notes — thousands each year — ever since.
At Nabisco, Conant wrote five to 10 personal notes daily to employees and others, celebrating successes and promotions, showing empathy in personal losses or sickness and thanking someone for even the smallest kindness.
Today at Campbell, it's common to see framed notes from the CEO in cubicles and on office walls.
"Doug has a natural warmth and interest in people," says Mitch Wienick, a Wayne, Pa., executive coach and longtime friend. "The notes are another way to reach out and not physically, but psychically, touch somebody."
Two years ago, the wife of John Faulkner, who works in Campbell's public affairs department, had triplets who were born prematurely. They were born on a Friday. One infant, John Christian, weighed just less than two pounds. He died 18 hours later (the other two boys are now doing well). On the following Monday, Campbell offices became aware of the death. On Tuesday the Faulkners received an overnight letter containing a heartfelt note from Conant.
"I was very touched that the first note of condolence I received from the company came from the CEO," says Faulkner.
In It's a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence says to George Bailey, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around it leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
In interviews with Conant's friends, stories about how he helps others occur with regularity. It's not an act, but as George Bailey discovered, it's part of a wonderful life, even if you're a CEO.
Daniel Cattau is a Chicago-area writer.
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