The Latest In Food Industry Investor Activism: Trian, Nelson Peltz and Sysco

investor-relationsActivist investors are taking aim at a growing number of competitively-advantaged but underperforming food companies. Bill Ackman and Mondolez. Sardar Biglari and Steak & Shake and Cracker Barrel. Jana Partners and ConAgra. Berkshire and Heinz and Kraft, Berkshire’s funding the Burger King and Tim Horton’s merger. Starboard Capital’s ouster of Darden’s board of directors.

And as of last Friday: Trian, Nelson Peltz and Sysco.

Peltz has a food industry background. As a young man he managed his grandfather’s food distribution business. Trian’s past and present investment portfolio includes Wendy’s, Heinz, Mondolez, Domino’s, Dr Pepper/Snapple, PepsiCo, Cadbury.

High-roller investors devour money-making ideas like fried chicken on Sunday…but with business sophistication unfamiliar to an industry plagued with outdated thinking, incrementalism and broken customer relationships. Despite the mania of activities, few companies are actually growing. Accumulating costs are outpacing revenue gains, cost cutting is not falling to the bottom line, and all are experiencing shrinking incremental returns on a variety of investments.

Enter the activist investor

They use their clout to bring about divestitures, splits, management ousters, mergers…whatever it takes to generate more value.

Sweeping changes usually start by demanding better governance:

  1. Overturning boards with new criteria for directors possessing exceptional knowledge and engagement in long term strategy; and,
  2. New management with uniquely unclouded insights, not the re-treaded solutions seen today in company after company.

Not all activists prevail but many have been more successful in recent years than in others–though it is unclear why. Our opinion is that food industry leaders have generally been slow to transform. Boards have not been sufficiently involved in redirecting strategy or raising the bar on performance. Shareholders have lost confidence and are now willing to get behind changes in how things are run and done.

Which is a tip for every CEO and board, regardless of size or structure, to incorporate a similar mindset into their organizations:

  • New leadership and capability criteria
  • Refreshed strategy in the new paradigm, backed by new business and operating models
  • New budgeting practices; in particular, zero based budgeting

Now, looking ahead after Friday’s announcement of Trian’s 7% stake in Sysco, what may the industry expect? In Blueberry’s opinion, possibilities include:

  • One or several top Sysco executives “spending more time with family”
  • Another look at Sysco’s transformation initiatives to revise, accelerate or abandon
  • Divesting any business that puts a drag on Sysco earnings
  • Push for faster market share growth via high margin local and regional accounts secured by multi-year supply contracts
  • Global sourcing
  • Rationalized accounts and national contract business
  • Another run at acquisitions which could include vertically integrating suppliers, a national broker, cash & carry, or an alliance with a major e-commerce company to better conform to customer preferences and reduce headcount
  • Heightened pressure on manufacturers to better leverage their awarded positions by growing Sysco share with increased spend and low prices to improve gross margins.


Manufacturers and the industry at large will be impacted by Friday’s announcement, if not directly then by competitors and new supply systems bolstered by an inflow of investments, channel customers consolidating and demanding more from suppliers, and customers continuing to experiment with new sources of value.

All of this is complicated by the certain awareness that the value from traditional activities and business streams continue eroding faster than ever.

Friday’s headline gave manufacturers–indeed all industry members–a new lens with which to view their 2016 strategies and plans. These investors move fast to make changes and extract immediate value.

Cascading impacts on your business are unavoidable. We highly recommend urgent action to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs.

The Importance of Relevance

apple.relevanceThe food industry is running short on Relevance.

Thanks to Professor David Aakers, Blueberry preaches Relevance over Preference to our clients.

  • Relevant organizations are obsessed with evolving customer behavior. They identify and act upon the new factors customers and non-customers are willing to invest in to experience value.
  • Those marketing Preference go head to head only with competitors in their sets and along factors assumed (often incorrectly) as important to customer groups.

Most in the food industry still compete on Preference and are likely heading toward decline.

A few compete on Relevance. They will surely survive and shape the future.

To food & beverage CEOs, questioning their organization’s relevance may seem absurd. But the relationship between manufacturers and customers is broken. Executives generally cannot name today’s 8-10 new factors creating customer value. As a result, strategies, plans, innovation, hiring and other business practices are built on quicksand.

While Relevance has soup-to-nuts business application, consider the example shared by Professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgnein, founders of Blue Ocean Strategy, in the development of a product: Yellow Tail wine.

To non-wine drinkers and younger consumers, wine is confusing and pretentious: descriptions, aging, prestige of vineyards, types of grapes. Wine makers John Casella and Peter Deutsch could have assumed these were relevant factors when setting out to find another place to play.

Instead, they busted assumptions and identified new factors relevant to many wine and non-wine drinkers.

Yellow Tail offers only Red and White varieties. Laid-back, sweeter, easier to purchase, alive and fun. Casella and Deutsch captured a large pool of new followers from two non-customer groups: millions of soft drink and water drinkers.

Same thing happened when Cirque du Soleil converted circus lovers from Barnum & Bailey, theater-goers and TV couch potatoes.

You get the picture. Retail CPG companies have gotten the picture. Foodservice is in the early stages of getting the picture.

Manufacturers are at a crossroads with a choice to make: Relevance or Preference? Shape the future or risk oblivion?


Much is written about Trust in leadership. Trust has many facets.

Here’s one: Fairness.

Fairness is a polite word with powerful synonyms: integrity, decorum, goodness, honor, duty, humanity, decency, give and take.

And its antonyms pack a real punch: deception, bias, falsehood, immoral, lying, rudeness, disregard, disrespect, wrong.

There are always occasional life-isn’t-fair situations. In this case, I’m talking about chronic bias, partiality and imbalance of fairness as a pattern that creeps into organizations or business relationships.

Fairness is defined as equal application of values. It’s root word is rendered as “what is right”. There is no distinction between what is right and fairness.

For those on the receiving end, the documentary, “Monkey Puzzle” confirmed how hard-wired fairness is in all of us. When a monkey’s companion received a tastier or larger food reward for performing an identical task, the first monkey became agitated, refused food and chose to go hungry rather than accept the lesser reward.

Fair treatment outranks self-interest.

Humans have a similar built-in mechanism. Studies show that people revolt, act out and subtly ‘punish’ leaders who treat them unfairly. Journalist and political commentator Brit Hume said, “Fairness is not an attitude. It’s a professional skill that must be developed and exercised.”

When there are double-standards in an organization–one set of rules for executives, another set of rules for everyone else–people notice. They become frustrated and distracted.

As the CEO, it would be wise to think honestly and deeply on this topic. Self-scrutinize whether you promote fair and consistent application of values, or whether you overlook or make excuses for violators in your organization’s high places. Do you turn a blind eye to avoid uncomfortable and hard decisions with your direct reports when warranted? Do you inconsistently and selectively apply values while subjecting others to the deflating experiences of double standards?

If Yes, it is imperative to understand that you may have indeed earned ‘punishment’ from others in covert forms as expressions of their mistrust. Stop blaming them and hold yourself accountable first. Take another look at the synonyms and antonyms to fairness above. Decide to take steps to change, grow and stand tall as a leader.

Fairness may not be as sexy as wielding power but in the end, the path to gaining, maintaining and recovering Trust from others is paved in it.

Courage = Fear + Action

Oxford Leadership’s Carl Lindeborg speaks fabulously on the topic of Courage in business. Moving and inspiring, a few of his highlights:

  • The reason for indecision or non-action in business is Fear.
  • We are born with only two fears: Fear of falling, and Fear of high pitch sounds. All others are learned.
  • Yielding to fear makes us less smart. According to an HP study, it reduces our IQ by 10%.
  • The root word for Courage is Latin for “Heart”, Courage comes from the heart and the fear we must overcome is very personal.
  • Courage is defined as being fearful but taking action anyway. The formula: Courage = Fear + Action
  • When fearful, we tend to focus on Getting. Getting something for ourselves. Connected to ego, ‘Getting’ blocks us from seeing the big picture of a situation or opportunity.
  • Focus instead on Giving. Giving something to others. ‘Giving’ is disconnected from ego and expands us to reach outside our comfort zones.
  • If we don’t expand, we shrink.
  • Fears are reduced when our focus shifts from Get to Give.

courage4We love Carl’s points and offer our own as follows:

We believe Courage is choosing the Hard Right over the Easy Wrong.

What’s Wrong is often Easy. Easy carries no Fear, no risk. Contentment fosters the status quo and we learn to live with its many consequences. Without fear, things are very Wrong. Comfort shrinks us as leaders.

What’s Right is often Hard. Hard because we feel Fear. Of getting it wrong, Of getting judged. Of making changes. Fear aches. Courage is feeling the Fear and taking action anyway because it’s Right. The ‘hard’ expands us as leaders.

Look fear in the face. Stare it down. Call it out. Move past it and take action.

Because in the end, Courage is liberating. Courage is freedom.