Helmut Maucher, executive who transformed Nestle, dies at 90

Former Nestle Chairman Helmut Oswald Maucher attends the shareholders meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 6, 2017.
Denis Balibouse | Reuters
Former Nestle Chairman Helmut Oswald Maucher attends the shareholders meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, April 6, 2017.

Helmut O. Maucher, who transformed Nestlé into the world's largest food company after working his way from a job in a milk production facility to chief executive, died on Monday at his home in Bad Homburg, Germany, a suburb of Frankfurt. He was 90.

A company spokeswoman confirmed the death.

Mr. Maucher revived and nurtured Nestlé, based in Switzerland, by slashing its bureaucracy and work force while snapping up key competitors like the American milk producer Carnation and the British confectioner Rowntree, maker of the popular Kit Kat bar.

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Known for axioms like "Keep heads up and overheads down," Mr. Maucher threw himself into his work. When asked for his thoughts on the concept of work-life balance in a 2016 interview with a German journalist, published on Nestlé's website, he said:

"For me, work-life balance means less the balance of work and leisure. Rather, the more responsibility you have in the job, the more interests you have to have — education, family, politics, sociology, psychology and so on."

Mr. Maucher's reputation as a turnaround wizard who could revive flagging parts of Nestlé's businesses landed him the position of chief executive in 1981. He was named chairman in 1990 and held both positions until 1997, when he stepped down as chief executive. He remained chairman until 2000.

Mr. Maucher is perhaps best remembered for his 1984 deal to buy Carnation for $3 billion, a merger he almost single-handedly orchestrated by initiating talks with Carnation's leaders, putting together financing and winning support from Nestlé's board, all in just three weeks.

At the time, the merger was the largest outside the oil industry in history. (It was outstripped just a few years later by Philip Morris's acquisition of Kraft Foods for $13.1 billion and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company's takeover of RJR Nabisco for nearly $25 billion.)

A banker at Dresdner Bank in Frankfurt said the Carnation deal showed that Mr. Maucher could "sprint when he has to."

His focus on efficiency did not always yield positive results. In 2000, a jury in Los Angeles awarded Richard Herr, a former employee at Nestlé's United States subsidiary in Glendale, Calif., more than $5 million in an age discrimination lawsuit.

Mr. Herr contended that he had been passed over for promotions that went to younger, less qualified employees. One piece of evidence presented by his lawyers was a memo by Mr. Maucher pledging to "continue identifying and developing young people … for future management." A California appeals court upheld the verdict.

Helmut Oswald Maucher was born on Dec. 9, 1927, in Eisenharz, a German town near the Austrian border. His father worked in the local milk plant there, and after Mr. Maucher finished high school — he had to leave his studies briefly when he was drafted by the German Army in the final months of World War II — he joined him.

Nestlé later bought the plant, and Mr. Maucher rose through the company ranks in Germany while earning a business degree from Frankfurt University.

He quit his job as the head of Findus, Nestlé's German frozen food unit, in 1969 after the company decided to sell Findus to Unilever. He returned in 1972 when Nestlé asked him to help revive a struggling Bavarian milk producer it had recently acquired. Three years later, he took over Nestlé's German subsidiary. He moved to Switzerland in 1980.

A company spokeswoman said Mr. Maucher was survived by his wife and three sons but did not provide their names.

For relaxation, Mr. Maucher liked to play the violin. In addition to his family home near Frankfurt, he kept a house on Lake Geneva near Nestlé's headquarters while he worked there. He retained the title of honorary chairman after his retirement.

Nestlé's chairman, Paul Bulcke, praised Mr. Maucher in a statement as "a strong and visionary leader who dedicated so much of his life to Nestlé."

In a December 1984 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Maucher mused about his commitment to keeping on top of details inside his company, even from his perch as chief executive. He said he worried that the Carnation deal, which had just been completed, would lead Nestlé employees to lose track of the day-to-day efficiencies that kept Nestlé running smoothly.

"When a company gets so big that it forgets to reckon in pennies," he said, "then something's foul. That's the beginning of the end."