Glenn’s sea-change will be rough going

Stuart%20SmithYou can’t, as the saying goes, make an omelette without breaking eggs. Engineering radical change is a ruthless business, implying uncomfortable discontinuity, bruised egos and egg on the face if you get it wrong.

This, roughly, is the measure of the challenge facing Martin Glenn, chief executive of Birds Eye Iglo, a year into revitalising the frozen foods business acquired from Unilever.

The honeymoon period is long over. Now come the hard decisions. Not surprisingly some people aren’t very happy with them. The departure in short order of the top marketing team inherited from Unilever – Andy Beattie and Caroline Drummond – has led to accusations that Glenn is a control freak who can’t let go of marketing, his special area of expertise. Some would go further; if we are to believe anonymous sources, plenty of executives in other departments are looking for the exit as well.

We should be wary of rushing to judgment on these developments, or supposed developments. The disengagement of Birds Eye from Unilever was never going to be an easy task. Put at its crudest, it required turning a business division into a standalone enterprise with its own corporate infrastructure. Some people have dramatised the stresses resulting from this transformation as a clash between two marketing cultures: Unilever’s and that of PepsiCo where Glenn has spent much of his career.

It would be a surprise if there were not some truth in this observation. Unilever’s operational approach to marketing is quite complex and arguably inappropriate to running a smaller organisation. It involves splitting off marketing strategy from implementation, and having a separate media communications department floating somewhere in between. The PepsiCo template, by contrast, is much leaner and more dependent on brand managers exercising greater control over the whole to-market process.

But it’s not that simple. Glenn cannot afford to act as if he were still the president of PepsiCo UK and Ireland, however successful that period of his career may have been. He is now the chief executive of a new enterprise whose primary investor is private equity company Permira. It’s a rougher, more challenging task. As Glenn himself remarks, with brutal clarity: “The company has changed so the objectives have changed. We reduced the size of the marketing role and it led to a diminution of power. Some don’t like that.”

Luckily for him, success at Birds Eye Iglo is not entirely dependent on running a tighter ship. The figures are flowing his way. Frozen food is not, like tobacco, some moribund cash cow but a sector in the throes of revival. After five years’ decline, it is now experiencing growth of about 3% a year, with Birds Eye’s own share slightly above trend. For this Glenn must, in part, thank Unilever which did some valuable repositioning of the category by reminding people that freezing is a natural way to preserve food, whereas many products in the more fashionable chilled sector contain questionable preservatives.

In the end, though, you make your own luck.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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