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It's about more than just the dough

The new chief executive of Goodman Fielder has his task cut out for him, writes Miriam Steffens.

The new chief executive of Goodman Fielder has his task cut out for him, writes Miriam Steffens.

Chris Delaney knows the list of troubles at Goodman Fielder is long: the maker of Wonder White bread and White Wings baking mixes has seen profits squeezed in the supermarkets price war and sales lost to homebrand goods, while costs for ingredients such as wheat have increased.

The company's market value has slid by almost a third this year as a string of management departures, including the chief executive and chief financial officer, was topped off by a profit downgrade in April.

So what would possess the 49-year old American executive to become its chief executive, putting the board out of its misery after a five-month search?

"There was a tremendous opportunity to come here and make a difference, that's the primary reason I came," he says after his first few days in the job.

He readily admits that "this is a company that is challenged right now, and we don't hide from that". But then the 27-year sales veteran in him takes over: "This is a great old company with a lot of traditions and some wonderful brands. I really believe that there's a lot of growth ahead of this company and there are a lot of things I can bring to make that happen."

The former Campbell Soup and Arnott's boss dusts flour from his pinstripe trousers as he meets us in his seventh-floor office at Goodman Fielder's North Ryde headquarters, having just tasted a range of artisan bread the company is launching.

Delaney faces a hard sell to turn around market sentiment and restore earnings growth at the foodmaker. Talk to analysts and they point out how his levers are limited, with soft commodity markets out of his control and retailers pushing back on attempts to raise wholesale prices. Meanwhile, pressure from the fierce battle between Woolworths and Coles is increasing. Both just slashed the price of their homebrand bread to as low as $1 a loaf.

Then again, it's not the first time he has found himself in the hot seat. To help understand why the established Campbell-Arnott's boss would take on the challenge, go back as far as to the fall of Communism.

When the Berlin Wall came down, Delaney, then a young sales representative with Procter & Gamble in the New York metropolitan area, stuck up his hand to go to eastern Europe with his wife Carmel, whom he had met at the company.

Having harboured affection for the region since his history studies at college, he was sent to Warsaw in 1993 to start building up the US conglomerate's reach in the former eastern bloc. He hardly knew what he had got himself in for. Used to dealing with US supermarket and pharmacy chains, "I got off the plane in Poland and there were no retail stores," he recalls.

The state-owned retail sector was insolvent, with entrepreneurs taking its place in open fields and town squares. "We used to joke that if you had a car, you were a wholesaler, and if you had a table, you were a retailer, and it literally was like that."

Delaney built up a network over the next three years to sell P&G's shampoos, nappies and soap bars across Poland before he was promoted to Brussels, Belgium, from where he oversaw the company's sales across central and eastern Europe.

In 1998, Delaney became head of P&G's country subsidiary in Kiev, Ukraine - just in time for the collapse of the Russian rouble and the Ukrainian hryvnia. He managed the business through the economic crisis for two years until merging it with P&G's Russian unit to survive.

At which time the US company presented him with yet another challenge: taking his wife and four kids to Saudi Arabia to run its operations in the Middle East. Moving the family to Jeddah was "probably the hardest decision", he says. But "the historian in me just loved it: it was a very tense but also a very exciting time to be on the ground".

Initially welcomed into the country as Americans (the US was an important ally to the Saudi Arabian royal family), the Delaneys experienced the deterioration of the security situation after the September 11 terrorist attacks and the US invasion of Iraq. As the number of al-Qaeda attacks increased, Delaney evacuated most of the Western employees by 2003.

"My wife and I left literally when there were guards at the airport and machine guns outside the housing complex guarding us against attacks," he says.

Back at P&G's headquarters in Cincinatti as a senior manager, Delaney missed the international challenges. Leaving his employer of 20 years, he signed up with Campbell Soup as head of international sales, where he would work from Philadelphia but travel around the globe to assess market opportunities. It was in that position that he was first introduced to Australia.

Delaney led the soupmaker's entry into Russia and China before being appointed to run its Asia-Pacific operations in late 2009 from Sydney, overseeing Arnott's biscuits and Campbell's businesses here as well as snacks and sauces in China and other parts of Asia.

Presiding over Arnott's, the self-confessed Caramel Tim Tam fan says he was very mindful of the sensitivities of an American handling "part of the Australian culture".

"We had a general manager who physically led Arnott's - they don't let the Americans too closely to the biscuits so we don't mess them up too badly," he says.

A looming reorganisation of Campbell's fast-growing Asia-Pacific business threatened to cut short his stint in Sydney. The move would have taken the Chinese market out of Delaney's hands, and he was offered a senior management position with the company in the US.

But he says his family wasn't ready to go back. "I have always loved Asia, and quite frankly am very comfortable in Australia," he says.

A friend introduced him to Goodman Fielder's chairman, Max Ould, and Delaney signed on for what he hopes will be the last big challenge in his career.

Asked about his plans for the embattled foodmaker, he says he doesn't "have a great strategy to unfold yet", having just started in the job. Priorities would be to strengthen relationships with consumers and retailers, "and I think there is a lot we can do with retailers to improve those relationships", as well as looking at the production network and development of new products. Over time, Goodman Fielder would also seek to expand its business in Asian markets.

Delaney plans to spend the next few months on factory floors and talking to customers to work out his strategy. (He's not allowed to run Goodman's biscuits division until April next year because of a non-compete clause with Arnott's.)

While he's still vague about the way ahead, he is clear about one thing: "One of the reasons I wanted to take this job is, I don't view this as a four-year commitment." Having signed a contract until 2015, "it is my great wish that this is my last operating job. And if I'm successful, I hope the four years is just a start".

The CV

DELANEY, Christopher Raymond

Born Long Island, New York, 1961

Education Trinity College Hartford, Connecticut. Bachelor of Arts degree in history, 1983

Occupation Chief executive officer of Goodman Fielder since July 4

Family married to Carmel for 23 years, four children

CAREER

October 2009 - June 2011 President Asia-Pacific of Campbell Soup Company/Arnott's

2004 to 2009 Campbell's vice-president international sales, then president, emerging markets

2003 to 2004 Procter & Gamble vice-president/general manager, North American market strategy and planning

2000 to 2003 P&G's vice-president/general manager Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia

1998 to 2000 P&G's general manager, Ukraine

1996 to 1997 P&G's sales director Central & Eastern Europe, Belgium

1993 to 1995 P&G's national sales manager, Poland

1983 to 1993 various sales roles at P&G in the US


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