Squeezing Heinz

  @FortuneMagazine October 10, 2013: 7:54 AM ET
HEI28 heinz ketchup
(Fortune)

As the 50 top executives of the H.J. Heinz Co. walked through the grand entrance to the Four Seasons San Francisco in June, they knew that this year's Chairman's Leadership Conference would be like no other. Typically an exercise in team building and strategy setting, the event had a standard agenda: a mix of meetings and market discussions, a wine tasting in Napa Valley, and a motivational talk from the CEO of 15 years, Bill Johnson.

But Johnson's speech wasn't a forward-looking call to action -- it was more of an emotional farewell to the 144-year-old company he had run. That's because just 10 days earlier, the owner of such brands as Smart Ones, Ore-Ida frozen foods, Heinz Beanz, and, of course, its market-leading ketchup, had closed the largest food company transaction in history. Heinz, with $11.6 billion in revenue, had sold itself to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and Brazilian-owned private equity firm 3G Capital for $29 billion. Johnson had already handed the CEO crown to Bernardo Hees (pronounced "hess"), who previously ran Burger King, another 3G investment. Now that the deal had closed, the executives wondered whether an offsite even made sense. The Brazilian owner was known for ruthless cost cutting, and the attendees all knew their tenure at Heinz was at risk.

But the meeting went on, and after Hees spoke about his "dream" for the new Heinz -- to make it the most efficient company in the food world -- many of the executives experienced 3G-style efficiency firsthand. About half of them were summoned, in 15-minute increments, to a conference room where the new CEO informed them whether they had a place at the new company or whether their Heinz career was over. "You couldn't dream it up, it was that weird," says one attendee.

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