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Danone picks industry veteran to replace ousted CEO

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Danone investors want the food and drink giant to get back to basics./AFP
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May 18, 2021 - 07:30 AM

PARIS, FRANCE — French food and beverages giant Danone said Monday that it had named a new CEO to replace Emmanuel Faber, who was ousted by the board in March over complaints that his focus on social responsibility was holding back the company’s profitability.

His replacement, Antoine de Saint-Affrique, currently the head of the Swiss chocolate group Barry Callebaut, has spent the bulk of his career at the food and consumer goods conglomerate Unilever, heading up its food division from 2011 to 2015.

He will take up the post in September, Danone said after a meeting of its supervisory board.

He will be tasked with increasing growth and margins at Danone, a storied French brand with some 100,000 employees worldwide and revenue that fell 6.6 percent last year to 23.6 billion euros ($28.7 billion).

The nomination follows months of rebellion by a faction of investors against Faber, blaming him for lacklustre profits compared to peers by insisting that Danone’s goals should include civil welfare and environmental protection alongside growth.

Early this year, activist investor funds Artisan Partners, based in the US, and Bluebell Capital in London revealed they had bought up significant Danone stakes in a bid to force a management and strategy overhaul focused on the bottom line.

Danone’s shares plunged by more than a third last year as the coronavirus crisis shut down restaurants and tourism, a huge market for the firm’s popular water brands such as Evian and Volvic.

In November, Faber announced plans to lay off around 2,000 of its 100,000 employees worldwide as part of a project to “reinvent” the company — drawing criticism from France’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who is struggling to limit job cuts during the Covid crisis.

Saint-Affrique, 56, already has in-house experience at Danone, as vice-president of its condiments business Liebig-Amora-Maille in the late 1990s before its acquisition by Unilever.

A father of four, he worked for Unilever in countries including the US, Russia and Hungary before leaving for Barry Callebaut in 2015.

The announcement of his departure from that job later this year stoked speculation of a move to Danone.

“He had a solid track record at Barry Callebaut, where he combined profitable growth and cash flow generation with strong commitments to environmental and sustainability issues,” said Jon Cox, an analyst at the French brokerage Kepler Cheuvreux.

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