Campell, a brand with a glorious past, has fallen into disrepair. And its spectacular comeback can be an inspiration to any struggling company.

Brand logo in trouble

In 2001, Doug Conant was appointed president and chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Company, a company specializing in the production of world-famous ketchup and chicken soup. But right now, Campbell was in a very bad situation.

Employees call the company headquarters a “prison”. This was because the parking lot was literally surrounded by barbed wire. The building itself was damaged. The company is experiencing financial difficulties. Its share price is only half of the peak reached in 1998.

The board of directors at that time had to cut 400 employees, cut advertising and even reduce some ingredients in products, like “less chicken in chicken noodle soup”. And the product, therefore, is no longer competitive.

Regarding culture, a Gallup survey found that more than 60% of the company’s employees are not really engaged in their jobs. An additional 10% of employees leave their jobs, which means they are literally turning against the company. But what’s worse is that more than 40% of the top management has almost “gone up”. No wonder the staff behave like that. They just modeled the toxicity they see from leadership every day.

To put it mildly, Conant is having to take over a property at a dire step.

Identify top priorities 

Starting to rebuild the “rubble”, Conant makes investing in people his top priority. Unable to continue cutting costs. Because that’s like “putting all the chicken in the chicken noodle soup.” But Conant knows the most valuable asset any organization has is its people. That’s where he puts his efforts and hopes.

Conant immediately began walking to Campbell’s headquarters and factories to meet with each employee individually. He then arranged many one-on-one meetings with staff, management, and human resources. This gives Conant more information than ever before, more than he gets from reports or spreadsheets.

It also gave him the opportunity to communicate his vision to all levels of the organization.

Take action and tough decisions

Conant began spending an hour a day hand-writing 20 “Thank You” letters to employees each day. He also began to clean up the working conditions and environment. But what he cleaned up the most was Campbell’s former leadership team.

In his first three years, Conant eliminated 300 of the company’s 350 top executives. He has replaced half with internal personnel, the other half are high-performing leaders from other organizations.

Spectacular comeback

With a new source of management, a new drive and a new spirit, Campbell began to return to the road of success. Innovative products, like easy-to-open pop-top cans, were created. Total revenue increased about 24% while the S&P 500 (market index) fell 10% during the same period. By any measure, Conant’s success with Campbell is astounding. During Conant’s 10 years as CEO, it is said that he personally wrote more than 30,000 thank-you letters. No one has ever been able to do that.

Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell

Leadership Lessons by Doug Conant

Here are five lessons to help a struggling organization regain lost momentum, which I gathered from Doug Conant’s leadership of Campbell Soup:

1. Everything rises or falls by the hand of the leader.
If you want your organization to revive and regain lost momentum, many times what you need is a new leader.

2. Information gathering to one level, decision making to another
Many times leaders rush to make judgments and solutions such as cutting costs or throwing money at problems. This is a mistake. First, gather information at the lowest levels of your organization. Then make decisions at the executive level.

3. The Law of the Inner Circle
John Maxwell is famous for his “Law of the Inner Circle” which states that the people closest to the leader will determine the success of the leader. Conant knew he had to make significant changes to the people closest to him.

4. Create the
new Newness creates motivation. By acquiring new leaders and creating new products, Campbell’s began to increase its revenue.

5. Go Downward Management
When your organization loses momentum, you can’t lead from the office. You have to be really “crushing”. As a leader, you have to fit in with your people. Again, people are a business’ greatest asset. Motivation rarely comes from the office. It was created from the ground floor.

If your organization has lost momentum, learn from Doug Conant the roadmap to getting it back.


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