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Campbell Soup CEO resigned suddenly, industry insiders have their eyes on a potential replacement

  • Campbell Soup said Friday CEO Denise Morrison is retiring, effective immediately.
  • COO Luca Mignini is viewed as a candidate for the job, though none has been chosen, sources tell CNBC.
  • The company will conduct a search before announcing a successor, sources said.
  • Campbell has struggled as its core soup business declines and its fresh foods business has stumbled.
Cans of Campbell's Tomato Soup are seen in a supermarket in New York.
Richard Levine | Corbis | Getty Images
Cans of Campbell's Tomato Soup are seen in a supermarket in New York.

Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison is out in an abrupt departure that many industry insiders expected to come, but few thought would happen so swiftly.

Morrison, who had been in the seat since 2011, notified employees of her resignation within the past 48 hours, sources tell CNBC, requesting anonymity because the information is confidential. The board was unhappy with its quarterly performance, one in a string of painful misses the company has had under her watch.

Shortly after announcing Morrison's departure, Campbell announced what it called "unacceptable" results.

"We delivered results that were below expectations, both ours and yours," interim CEO Keith McLoughlin told analysts in a Friday morning call.

Campbell continues to face slowing — and in some segments declining — sales. Its businesses like soup, V8 juices and SpaghettiOs remain out of sync with how today's young consumers eat. Older consumers too are increasingly paying attention to the nature of the food they are eating.

Meantime, cost pressures from shipping and margin-squeezing retailers are mounting.

As result, Campbell said Friday it is lowering its expectations for this year's organic adjusted earnings before interest and tax, anticipating a drop of 11 percent to 9 percent, greater than the 7 percent to 5 percent fall initially expected.

It is also lowering its expectations for 2018 earnings per share, to a decline of 3 percent to 1 percent, down from a rise of 2 percent to 4 percent.

It took a $619 million impairment charge, due to weaknesses in the company's fresh segment. The business, which includes fresh food and drinks brand Bolthouse Farms, Garden Fresh Gourmet salsa and refrigerated soup, had an operating loss of $19 million for the quarter. The same quarter last year it reported earnings of $1 million.

Campbell Fresh was a key priority of Morrison's, propped up by Campbell's 2012 acquisition of Bolthouse Farms for $1.55 billion. But the brand's carrot business was plagued with quality issues driven by a Californian drought. Its fresh drinks business is now facing competition from the likes of Coca-Cola's Suja and PepsiCo's Naked juice.

Potential successor identified

A likely candidate for the CEO seat has already emerged, sources say: Luca Mignini.

Mignini, who previously oversaw Campbell's biscuits and snacks portfolio, was one of the architects of Campbell's $4.87 billion acquisition of snacks brand Snyder's-Lance.

Campbell has not yet chosen a successor, and it plans a thorough internal and external search before naming one, those sources caution.

Still, the company sent smoke signals in April when it promoted Mignini to chief operating officer, adding to his responsibilities the company's simple meals and beverages business. The unit includes its namesake soup brand. Also in April, Mark Alexander, who had overseen the company's simple meals and beverages business, stepped down.

Mignini is described by industry sources as smart and confident. He joined Campbell in 2013 as president of the company's international business. He previously oversaw the Italy division of frozen food business Findus. Before that, he worked at SC Johnson.

Under his tenure, Campbell's Pepperidge farm snacking unit has stood out as one of the relatively bright spots of growth. This quarter, organic sales for the unit, which exclude the impact of its Snyder's-Lance acquisition, grew 1 percent. That's more than Campbell's total quarterly organic sales growth, which was flat.

No sacred cows

"We are undertaking a thorough and critical review of all aspects of our strategic and operating plan, including the composition of our entire portfolio," incoming interim CEO Keith McLoughlin told investors Friday morning.

"Everything is on the table. There are no sacred cows."

Should Campbell's review lead to divestitures, which industry sources expect, several point to brands it sells in the center of the grocery store. So-called center-of-the-store products continue to see pressure as grocers and convenience stores focus on the fresh and prepared food likely to bring shoppers to the store.

Campbell's center-of-store businesses, which include V8 juice and SpaghettiOs, are likely to attract private equity buyers, which are often adept at finding profit through squeezing costs.

Meantime, the company emphasized its continued backing of its snacking business in its morning call with investors, making large divestitures from that business less likely.

"The recent addition of the Snyder's-Lance portfolio of brands and Pacific Foods, both of which I strongly supported, will enhance our growth potential as we expand into the faster-growing snacking categories and enhance our health and well-being offerings of soup and broth," McLoughlin said.

Campbell did not specifically address whether its namesake soup would be on the block, but in the press release announcing Mignini's appointment as COO, it highlighted soup as a priority.

"My immediate focus is on maintaining momentum in our existing snacks portfolio, integrating Snyder's-Lance and Pacific Foods, and stabilizing the U.S. soup portfolio," Mignini then said in a statement.

Meantime, analysts perennially name Campbell as a potential takeover target for Kraft-Heinz. A deal would not only offer synergies, it could also — industry sources say — be structured to allow Campbell's significant shareholder, the Dorrance family, to keep their dividend.

Still, the Dorrance family has not previously indicated willingness to sell and the company has weathered such speculation before.

Campbell declined to comment.

WATCH: Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison retires