The Hershey Co.’s next CEO isn’t just an in-house hire, but a hometown pick — or fairly close to one.
Michele Buck’s path to prominence began in Carlisle, where she grew up. Today, company officials said, she lives near the Derry Township company, in the Hershey/Hummelstown area of Dauphin County.
Effective March 1, Buck, 55, will replace John P. Bilbrey at the head of the candy company, which ranks at No. 366 on the Fortune 500 list and recorded sales of $7.39 billion last year.
Buck, who has developed a reputation as an innovator, also has two decades of executive experience in the consumer packaged foods sector, with postings at Kraft/Nabisco in numerous senior positions and at the Frito-Lay division of PepsiCo before returning to the region in 2005 to work at one of Pennsylvania’s most iconic brands.
Her climb started in a way many people will find familiar.
Buck recounted her early days in a speech to students during a 2014 visit to the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, where 27 years earlier she earned an MBA. She recounted how she started working at age 10, first delivering papers, then babysitting. The future CEO also has waited tables, sold Avon products door-to-door and worked as a bank teller, according to a UNC account of her appearance at Kenan-Flagler and Hershey officials.
The daughter of an electrician and a teacher, Buck told students “I wasn’t always aspiring to be a CEO,” adding that when she came out of graduate school, “I just wanted to be a brand manager.”
Prior to her graduate studies, Buck graduated in 1982 from what is now Shippensburg University, earning a bachelor’s degree in management.
News of her impending promotion has been well received on campus.
“The Hershey Co. is not only a significant international corporation, but also a notable employer here in southcentral Pennsylvania, where it was founded,” university President Jody Harpster said. “We are pleased and proud that an alumna of our John L. Grove College of Business, Michele Buck, has been named to lead Hershey as its new president and chief executive officer.”
Dr. John Kooti, dean of the John L. Grove College of Business, added that ties between the department and Hershey remain strong.
The business school has a longstanding relationship with The Hershey Co., which was the first recipient of the John L. Grove College of Business Company of the Year Award, in 2007-08, he noted. The company won again in 2008-09. Hershey also provides internships for Shippensburg students, and is a respected employer among graduates.
“Michele is a prime example of the success of our Shippensburg University alumni,” Kooti said. “We are very proud of Michele and her accomplishments throughout her professional career.”
Up the ranks
According to biographical information provided by The Hershey Co., Buck became managing director at Nabisco Specialty Products Co. in December 1996.
The following September, she was named vice president of marketing for Planters, a post she held until being named to the same position for the LifeSavers candy brand in September 1999.
In January 2001, Buck became vice president of Kraft Confections. Ten months later, she was named executive vice president and general manager.
She came to Hershey in March 2005. As senior vice president and global chief marketing officer, and later chief growth officer, her purview included responsibility for Hershey’s strategy and vision, innovation, research, development, The Hershey Experience, consumer insights and public affairs.
In 2013, Hershey announced that Buck would become president of North American business with responsibility for accelerating Hershey’s growth in the U.S. and Canada.
Buck “has spearheaded the development and execution of many successful growth initiatives and strategic shifts at the company,” officials said recently, “most notably Hershey’s substantial growth in its core confection portfolio as it moved from a supply- to demand-driven business model.
She also was the architect behind Hershey’s strategy to expand into broader snacking categories, officials said, overseeing the acquisitions of Krave Jerky in 2015, and the barkThins brand in 2016. Described as “snacking chocolate,” barkThins are slivers of dark chocolate filled with ingredients such as almonds, pretzels, coconut, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Both purchases were described as moves that helped Hershey branch out beyond its traditional confection portfolio.
In June 2016, Buck was named executive vice president and COO, reporting to Bilbrey.
A time of change
But 2016 was a significant year for Hershey in other ways.
Illinois-based Mondelez International, maker of Oreo cookies and numerous other snack brands, made a $23 billion pitch last summer. The company’s initial approach was rejected by Hershey’s board on June 30.
Mondelez is a 2012 spin-off from what was then Kraft Foods.
The initial overture was followed by additional approaches, but by the end of August it was revealed that Mondelez was walking away.
Bloomberg reported that the original offer, at $107 per share, was later increased to $115 per share, citing a person familiar with the private talks who asked not to be identified. Hershey’s starting point was $125 per share, the source reportedly said.
When Hershey wouldn’t budge, Mondelez gave up.
The one-year peak of the company’s stock had been over $113 per share as of June 30. But prices dropped sharply after Mondelez walked away, dipping into the $96 range after news broke.
Two other big stories broke in October.
That month the company announced that Bilbrey, who had taken over in May 2011, intended to step down effective July 1. A search committee was to be convened, reviewing internal and external candidates with assistance from executive search firm Egon Zehnder.
Erin Lash, an analyst with Chicago-based investment research firm Morningstar Inc., wrote in a note to investors that “Buck strikes us as the most likely internal candidate.”
Meanwhile, Hershey also announced the launch of its new Cookie Layer Crunch bars, an innovation said to be 18 months in the making, combining the company’s iconic chocolate with cookie bits and flavored fillings.
According to the company’s official release, pre-launch consumer testing earned the bars “some of the highest consumer scores of any product ever launched by the company.”
Changing the guard
Against that backdrop, the week before Christmas was when Hershey announced that Buck would take over from Bilbrey. He, in turn, will continue as non-executive chairman of Hershey’s board of directors.
Compensation packages for the pair were not immediately announced. Bilbrey’s total compensation package in 2015 was $10.8 million, down from $17.7 million in 2014.
“Michele is a proven leader who, during 11 years at Hershey and more than 25 years as an executive in the consumer packaged goods industry, has a demonstrated track record of building brands consumers love while bringing out the best in employees amid a rapidly changing business environment,” Bilbrey said.
“She has consistently displayed a keen sense for how to grow our iconic brands,” he added. “The unanimous vote by the board is a testament to the confidence we have in Michele as the next leader of this great company.”
For her part, Buck offered a nod to tradition, as well as the future.
“Hershey is an incredibly special company with a rich 120-year history of bringing goodness to the world,” Buck said. “I am honored to be chosen as the next leader of this innovative and pioneering business.”
“The opportunity ahead for Hershey is tremendous, and to take advantage of it will require a clear focus on meeting the evolving needs of consumers while moving quickly to stay ahead of the trends shaping our business,” she added.