Campbell CEO Conant nears his 'extraordinary' goal

•Convenience. Conant shakes his head when he discusses how long it took Campbell to create a microwaveable soup package. "The microwave was invented in 1947, but it took us until 2002 to put together a microwaveable soup pack. Why did it take us 55 years to do that?"

Conant has no crystal ball, but folks who know him think he has a pretty good bead on trends.

Long before it was politically correct to be "green," Conant created a program at Kraft Foods that promoted its environmental good deeds, says Jim Kilts, former CEO of Nabisco. "This guy's a forward thinker."

Just as vital, says management author Jim Collins, Conant is disciplined. Although Godiva chocolate was a "sexy" brand, Collins says, Conant sold it last year. "That gets my attention, when someone has the discipline to let go of what doesn't fit."

Conant has no desire to try to turn Campbell into a packaged-food giant such as Kraft. "There's no evidence that large, diversified food companies win over time," he says.

Keeping innovation on track

One criticism of Conant has been that he hasn't put more emphasis on creating new, powerhouse brands for Campbell. "He needs to go for more home runs instead of singles," says Al Ries, a marketing consultant. "Line extensions are just singles."

But Conant doesn't swing for the fences — and that's central to his success, says Ram Charan, author of several management books and Conant's former business professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"The company was floundering until he came in," Charan says. "He put the innovation machine back into the company."

Conant is not about to give it up, and says he has no thought of retiring anytime soon.

He also scoffs at a comment Heinz CEO William Johnson made during a shareholder Q&A at the Heinz annual meeting last year: that Campbell was a good "fit" for a Heinz acquisition.

"We're not on the market," he says. Full stop.

But the tough talk seems to melt away a few moments later when the CEO takes a reporter on a quick tour of his office. Along with a gallery of family photos, Conant keeps under glass a very special handwritten letter that his daughter gave him for his 50th birthday.

In it, she lists her 50 "favorite things" about Dad. Each is more endearing than the next. But she suddenly ends the list at No. 20, writing: " … and sometimes you annoy me."

Conant isn't shy about this. He's actually quite proud. He laughs out loud.

What else to expect from the guy who, for the past eight years, has unofficially been Campbell's chicken soup for the soul?

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