General Mills on Thursday named Jeffrey Harmening president and chief operating officer. If history is any guide, that means he will become its next chief executive.
A 22-year veteran of General Mills, Harmening for the last two years has led the company’s largest business, U.S. Retail, which accounts for about 60 percent of its $17 billion in revenue.
The last time General Mills appointed a president was 2006, when Ken Powell was named. Powell the next year ascended to chief executive, a position he still holds.
Before Powell, the previous president was Steve Sanger, who became CEO in 1995.
Before he led the U.S. Retail business, Harmening, 49, was chief executive of Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture of General Mills and Switzerland-based Nestlé. Harmening has also been president of General Mills’ cereal operating unit and held other U.S. marketing roles.
“Jeff has a wide range of experience in both the U.S. and internationally. The timing is right to bring together overall operations under one leader. Jeff is well-positioned to accelerate our global Consumer First strategy to drive both growth and profitability,” Powell said in a statement.
Powell is 62 and, until Thursday’s announcement, there had been no outward signs of succession at the top of General Mills.
In an interview Powell gave to the executive consulting firm Egon Zehnder in 2014, he said the company’s board routinely talks about succession.
“We have deep discussions about what the chief executive role requires, what the company will need, what we are doing to develop our top 10 to 15 leaders, and how they are progressing,” Powell said in the interview. “It is a decision and an evaluation that plays out over time, so it is an ongoing conversation.”
Harmening has been the company’s public figure on several of General Mills’ most visible decisions recently, including a bold move in March to label all of its products that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in the face of a Vermont law that will soon require GMO labeling in that state.
Instead of managing different labels in different places, the company decided to use GMO labeling on all of its products nationwide.
“We can’t label our products for only one state without significantly driving up costs for our consumers, and we simply won’t do that,” Harmening said in a post on a company blog at the time.
Late last month, General Mills voluntarily recalled more than 10 million pounds of its Gold Medal flour after people across the U.S. became sick from a potentially deadly strain of E. coli that may have come from a company production plant in Kansas City.
In addition to Gold Medal, recalled brands include General Mills’ Signature Kitchens flour and Gold Medal Wondra flour.
Earlier this month, the company announced its first brand-new cereal brand in 15 years, Tiny Toast. General Mills hopes the new product will bolster cereal sales.
Cereal is General Mills’ largest segment but sales of the breakfast food fell 9 percent from 2011 to 2015 before getting a lift this year.