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New Mondelez CEO's honeymoon could be cut short

Jennifer Saba
Dirk Van de Put
Source: Mondelez

Mondelez International's orderly succession planning is sweet inspiration for a situation that could soon turn salty. The $66 billion snack purveyor named Chief Executive Irene Rosenfeld's replacement, reaching outside its ranks for frozen-food executive Dirk Van de Put. Others would do well to emulate the process, but the new boss may still walk into a merger fight.

The Oreo maker isn't immediately showing Rosenfeld, 64, the door. She plans to step down as chief executive in November but will stay as chairman before Van de Put assumes that title, too, after the first quarter next year. Rosenfeld will help with the transition, guiding Van de Put through the various lines of its global business spanning products from Cadbury chocolates to Ritz crackers to Trident gum.

Van de Put, who is 57 and currently running McCain Foods, will step into his new role at a turbulent time for consumer packaged-goods manufacturers. For one, people are more health-conscious and sugar in particular has become the latest no-no. Mondelez is focusing on emerging markets, which account for 40 percent of the top line, to counter the trend taking hold in developed countries. Still, the company said on Wednesday that net revenue for the second quarter fell 5 percent year-over-year to some $6 billion.

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The unsteadiness has made Mondelez a tempting target for cage-rattling investors like Bill Ackman and Nelson Peltz, though Rosenfeld invited the latter to join the company's board in 2014. Would-be acquirers are lurking, too. One is Kraft Heinz, backed by Warren Buffett and 3G Capital, which is eager to swallow its next target. Mondelez, which Rosenfeld spun out from the former Kraft Foods five years ago, could be in its sights since the failure of a $143 billion tilt at Unilever, which rebuffed Kraft Heinz's approach earlier this year.

Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Mondelez.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Mondelez may be on the expensive side for the time being. Its enterprise value tips the scales at roughly 16 times estimated EBITDA for this year, according to Thomson Reuters data, in line with Kraft Heinz. That may allow Van de Put a little time, but once he arrives at Mondelez, the honeymoon may be short-lived.

Commentary by Jennifer Saba, a columnist at Breakingviews. Follow her on Twitter @jennifersaba.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.