Food supremo retains her global appetite

No modern takeover in Britain caused so much public furore as the February 2010 purchase by American food giant Kraft of Cadbury. Britons, as the highest per capita chocolate eaters in the world, were outraged by this assault on their national heritage by a US company.

There have been several inquiries by the Commons business committee into whether the new owners have lived up to the undertakings made at the time of the deal. The broad answer is "no."

In the latest setback it was revealed that Kraft had written to employees at the historic Bournville site in Birmingham, announcing that it would be making redundancies at the end of March - the date that Kraft's pledge to the Commons not to sacrifice jobs comes to an end. Yet the architect of the Cadbury transaction, 58-year-old Kraft chief executive Irene Rosenfeld, goes from strength to strength.

She regularly appears at the top of the Forbes list of the most influential women in the world. She has just been named by the Financial Times as the world's number-one businesswoman for 2011. American Angela Ahrendts, the chief executive of Burberry, was the highest-ranking woman heading a British-based enterprise at number eight (in the list of 50).

Kraft boss Irene Rosenfeld goes from strength to strength

So, given the lingering controversy over Cadbury, why is Rosenfeld, a neat, slim, practising Jew based in Chicago, so highly rated by her business peers around the world? Well, it's mainly because of her vision and bravery.

In keeping with her audacious takeover of Cadbury, earlier this year Rosenfeld began another eye-catching process. She proposed - and is now pressing ahead with - plans to split Kraft into two separate companies despite having previously preached the benefits of global scale.

Rosenfeld, who has a PhD in brand management from New York's Cornell University, describes her admiration for scale as a "misconception". She told the FT: "We are talking about two companies with sizeable scale in their respective markets. The North American business is a $16 billion business with a set of iconic brands, more than 80 per cent of which have a number-one market position in their respective categories. The global snacks business (of which Cadbury will be part) is a $32 billion behemoth with the number-one position in three or four categories and a sizeable footprint in key markets."

The patter, laced with no-nonsense marketing spiel, is unemotional and typical of business school alumni.

In effect, this means that Rosenfeld, having gobbled up Cadbury and other European confectionery brands, including Toblerone, is planning to package these higher-value products into one company and make a big push at global markets. The rump of the less exciting US names such as Philadelphia cheese, Ritz crackers, Jacobs coffee and Capri Sun juice, will continue to focus on the US domestic market.

The most interesting aspect of the snacks division is that, in creating a growth business around confectionery, Rosenfeld is essentially duplicating Cadbury. The reason that Kraft was interested in Cadbury in the first place was because of its heavy exposure to the high-growth economies of Latin America, Asia and Australasia. Cadbury is the leading confectionery brand in India and China, has strong roots in Australia and New Zealand and its gum brand, Adams, has a strong grip on Brazil.

The former chairman of Cadbury, Sir Roger Carr, currently president of the Confederation of British Industry, was so intrigued by Rosenfeld's split that he phoned her in Chicago and suggested she rename the snacks arm of the company "Cadbury" and bring the share price quotation back to its natural place on the London market. Apparently Rosenfeld was not amused by this suggestion.

She earned her position as the top-ranking businesswoman for the way in which she came to grips with Kraft, an old-style food conglomerate, ridding it of layers of top management, transforming strategy, decentralising decision-making to the regions and increasing diversity. But there is no indication that the veteran of the food industry is ready to quit. "I love what I do," she said. "I intend to play a role, after the spin-off, in one of the two companies."

Rosenfeld's business reputation may not be in doubt but her diplomatic skills might need polishing. Twice she has been invited to appear before the Commons to talk about Cadbury and twice she has declined, even though she is capable of charming her audience.

Not so long ago she was overhead at Davos, the annual gathering of the business world's great and good, saying how difficult it would be to visit Bournville because she would face protests.

My own experience of Rosenfeld is of a charming, highly-intelligent, intense executive with a great deal to offer. It is a pity for Cadbury - and Rosenfeld's reputation in the UK - that she has failed to show us her kinder and gentler side.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 11:26am, December 29 2011