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49th Annual Management Conference

2001 Distinguished Alumni Awards

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James M. Kilts, '74

 

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1970-1985
General Foods

--vice president and division manager, Oscar Meyer Foods

1985--1997
Philip Morris Companies
--senior vice president, Kraft International

--president, Kraft U.S.A., Kraft General Foods

--executive vice president of worldwide food operations, Philip Morris Companies

1997-1998
JMK Investments
--principal

1998-2000
Nabisco
--president and CEO

2001-present
The Gillette Company
--chairman and CEO

 

 

2001 Distinguished Alumni Awards

A Household Name
James M. Kilts, '74, revitalized America's favorite brands. Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer, Oreo. Each of these brands carries not only instant name recognition but also a distinct American cultural identity, jingle and all. Each serves millions of loyal consumers throughout the world. And each continues to enjoy large and growing market shares and sales, thanks in large part to James M. Kilts, '74, this year's Distinguished Corporate Alumnus.

The 53-year-old Kilts, who has built a reputation and a career on his ability to rejuvenate stagnant brands and revitalize troubled corporations, restored not only the flagging sales of Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer, and Oreo brands, but also a host of other American food staples, including LifeSavers, Kraft cheese, and Planters peanuts.

When Nabisco named him president and CEO in 1998, its market share for brands representing 90 percent of the company's U.S. sales was declining. In just 18 months, Kilts engineered a turnaround that resulted in market shares growing for 90 percent of Nabisco's brands, including growth of 20 percent for LifeSavers and 40 percent for Cheese Nips in 1999.

"Jim has the capacity to breathe new life into brands that have lost their luster," Douglas R. Conant, one of Kilts's former colleagues at Nabisco, told the New York Times earlier this year.

This vigorous and effective style recently attracted the attention of The Gillette Company, which appointed Kilts chairman and CEO in February. Having experienced tremendous growth in the mid 1990s, Gillette found its costs rising much faster than sales over the last few years. The company hopes Kilts can reverse this trend, just as he did for General Foods, Kraft, and Nabisco.

Dubbed a "brand mechanic" by the Wall Street Journal for his work at Kraft, Kilts said he has an abiding interest in consumer products and marketing.

"After I finished high school and before I went to college, I worked at a General Foods research laboratory in Chicago," he said. "Whenever I went someplace, and told people about the products I worked on--Kool-Aid, Shake 'N Bake, Open Pit barbecue sauce--they always wanted to talk about the products, about what they liked, what they didn't like, and how we could improve a product."

Kilts nurtured his interest in high-profile brands and consumer feedback throughout college, and, after receiving his M.B.A. in 1974, he rejoined General Foods. There, he held positions in operations, marketing, and general management, all further feeding his interest in branding and corporate turnarounds.

"The involvement with a product, the feedback that you receive, and the fact that there are so many people that use your products every day and are familiar with them that's all very rewarding and satisfying to me," said Kilts, who attributes the ultimate direction of his career to his years at General Foods. "For some reason, whenever there was a problem, they'd throw me into it," he said. "I also developed a reputation for handling new products very well, so I always got heavily involved in new product introductions. Those were the two areas of strength for me early in my career. I got to see a lot of action."
"I have a saying about myself: Often wrong but never uncertain."

Part of that action included a stint as vice president and division manager for General Foods' Oscar Mayer division, where he helped develop the popular meal kit called Lunchables. At a Chicago GSB event in May, Kilts told his fellow alumni: "Mothers wanted to send their kids to school with a prepared lunch. We did it for them." (See "Escaping the 'Circle of Doom'")

Today, Lunchables is almost a billion-dollar business at retail for Oscar Mayer. "It helped turn around the entire company," said Kilts, who also found success at General Foods with powdered beverage mixes.

"We had a situation where the business was stagnant with Kool-Aid. The product, which has sales of more than $300 million annually, wasn't growing." Kilts knew that powdered soft drinks were desperate for a turnaround.

"Using old and new research, we looked at the entire beverage market through the consumer's eyes, not ours, to find out what we could bring to the world of powdered beverage mixes," he said.

Kilts and his researchers found that adults consume nearly 60 percent of all Kool-Aid. "We saw this as a great marketing opportunity," said Kilts. "The result was Country Time Lemonade."

As development manager for Country Time, Kilts oversaw the drink's introduction to the national marketplace. Now it's a $200 million business--as is low-calorie Crystal Light, which Kilts later developed for the health- and weight-conscious consumer.

Continued >>

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