General Mills, the packaged-food behemoth and one of Minnesota’s most venerable companies, turns 150 years old this year. With roots reaching into the formative days of Minneapolis, when the flour-milling operations of its predecessors were powered by the Mississippi River at St. Anthony Falls, it has long been part of the city’s identity—a solid corporate citizen employing thousands, famous for its charitable giving and support of progressive causes. And in a business where branding is almost everything, General Mills, the country’s 10th-largest food company, owns several of the world’s most iconic brands, including Cheerios, Wheaties, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Häagen-Dazs.
When its sesquicentennial celebration takes place near the company’s birthplace along the downtown riverfront this June, fireworks will light up the night sky. But a shadow will hang over the festivities.
After decades of steady growth and robust returns to shareholders, General Mills is flat-lining. Sales for the first half of its current fiscal year were down 3.9 percent as of Nov. 29. This follows a decrease of 2 percent to $17.6 billion for all of fiscal 2015 ending last May. At that time, net earnings were $1.3 billion, down sharply from $1.9 billion the previous year.
“People are eating differently,” says Jack Russo, an analyst who follows General Mills for Edward Jones. “They haven’t stopped eating packaged foods. But they’re slowing down.”
Consumers are increasingly turning away from packaged foods and becoming so-called “perimeter shoppers,” who buy most of their food from the meat, seafood, dairy and produce sections that line the outer aisles of the grocery store. As a result, shoppers are increasingly “leaving General Mills’ more heavily processed categories like meals and cereal in the dust,” says Alexia Howard, an analyst with AllianceBernstein, in her most recent research report on the company.
Cost-cutting moves begun in 2014 include the ongoing closures of half a dozen plants in North America, factories in England and New Zealand, plus layoffs reducing the workforce by about 2,500. Those cutbacks are hitting both factory workers and white-collar executives, most of the latter at the Twin Cities headquarters, where about 10 percent of the company’s 40,000 employees work.
Investors remain happy, given that General Mills management’s prudent cost cuts have reduced the company’s cost of sales and SG&A expenses by more than 6.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in the first six months of its current fiscal year. Sales fell by only 3.9 percent in the same period, so the result was a 12 percent boost in the company’s operating profit, excluding one-time divestiture and restructuring costs. The company also continues to pay reliable dividends—and repurchase its stock. As a result, even though net earnings dropped in each of the last two years, dividends per share increased.
The company has sustained revenues longer than most Big Food companies, thanks to efficiency advantages in its plants and supply chains, and to smarter investments in IT that allow it to more closely monitor retail activity. But the continuing slump, due at least in part to increasing competition from smaller organic and natural food companies, as well as private-label price competition in existing categories, has hit home, Howard says. “They’re still doing better than most, but now the pressure is really on. They’re substantially challenged.”
Russo remains optimistic, pointing out that General Mills remains better positioned than most of its Big Food competitors to weather the current consumer-trend storm. “It’s a well-managed company. I wouldn’t bet against them.” And shareholders agree—at least thus far (see “Charmed Investors,”).
Yet revenue continues to drop and is expected to slip overall by another 4 percent this year. The worst news is that a major factor in the company’s performance is the sagging popularity of its largest overall product line, Big G ready-to-eat cereals. It’s perhaps for this reason that, as it addresses the changing times Russo describes, the company is focusing much of its energy on cereal.
Lots of people still begin their day with cereal. But some don’t, and their numbers are growing. Industrywide, cereal sales are in decline, at somewhere between 1 and 5 percent a year, a trend that is unlikely to reverse anytime soon, according to Erin Lash, an analyst who follows General Mills for Morningstar.
Just how big the wave of perimeter shopping has become is debatable; most people still buy and consume packaged foods. But according to a recent Food Marketing Institute survey of shopping trends, about one-quarter of consumers say they want short, simple ingredient lists. A similar number looks for locally grown or produced foods, and a slightly bigger segment, about 28 percent, say they prefer minimally processed foods. The study also found that what consumers most want in their foods are whole grains. The list of things they want least includes salt, sugar and artificial ingredients. And since those have long been the backbone of ready-to-eat cereals, General Mills has had to go back to the lab.
Some of the company’s most recent financial challenges have been caused by external factors, including foreign currency disruptions and volatile “input costs”—what it pays for raw materials. “But from an organic perspective,” Lash says, “the cereal business is challenged. It’s losing out to other breakfast alternatives like bars and yogurt.” Organic, in this context, refers to the fundamentals of the business, though it also has another meaning that’s important to this story.
On the breakfast foods front, General Mills sells granola bars and yogurt, too, and this has helped offset the recent drop in cereal sales. Lash says the company is under no greater duress than its competitors are. But the situation is stark. Cereal is the company’s number one product category globally. In terms of revenues, U.S. retail sales account for about 60 percent of General Mills’ sales; the rest comes from institutional sales and international operations. And among U.S. retail operating units, cereal is the second-largest category, slightly behind sales of pizza, soups, taco ingredients, dinner kits such as Hamburger Helper and other “meal” offerings.
Last year, despite increasing its share of the domestic cereal market, General Mills’ cereal revenue decreased 3 percent to $2.3 billion—an incremental stumble, but the wrong direction in a category that had grown for decades. Sales of meal products experienced a similar decline. The company also said goodbye to nearly $600 million in annual revenue when it shed one of its legacy brands last year, the domestic unit of Green Giant frozen and canned vegetables, which was sold for $765 million.
Such results are further evidence that General Mills has come face-to-face with the 21st century’s rapid pace of change and all its fluid, disruptive, sometimes chaotic tendencies, according to Paul Vaaler, a professor of law and business at the University of Minnesota who watches the company. “All of these big food companies were innovators. But they were built for the post-World War II 20th century. By the late 1990s, consumer tastes had begun to shift toward less processed and more organic, health-promoting foods. General Mills and the other food giants are not designed to respond quickly to those trends.”
While General Mills continues to deliver financial results for its shareholders, and Vaaler says he admires its savvy cost-cutting measures, different strategies are needed now: “You can’t cost-cut your way to a new reality.”
Michele Simon, an author and food industry critic with the watchdog group Eat Drink Politics, agrees. “Consumer tastes are changing. General Mills was built for the industrial age. Now people are getting more interested in food, not manufactured food. Being 150 years old these days is maybe not such a great thing.”
Or it may be its saving grace.
General Mills has re-invented itself many times over the years. After the Washburn-Crosby A Mill blew up in downtown Minneapolis in the spring of 1878, the company rebuilt, and within two years won an international competition for the world’s best flour. In the 1920s and ’30s General Mills expanded beyond milling to become a food company, notably with the introduction of breakfast cereals such as Wheaties and Kix.
Artificial colors are gone; problem is, so are the vibrant hues.
Trix originally featured just three colors—red, orange and yellow—a purely visual treat, because regardless of color, the cereal was uniformly flavored with a blend of lemon, raspberry, and strawberry. The coloring was done mostly with artificial dyes, though turmeric was used for the yellow. Over time, the number of colors doubled to include purple, blue and green.
Four years ago, General Mills started thinking about how to remake Trix by removing the artificial dyes and replacing them with natural coloring agents. This was because people—specifically, parents—perceived the dyes to be unwholesome, according to Kate Gallager, a General Mills cereal developer who led the project after it was green-lit about 18 months ago.
“This was not just a removal,” says Gallager. “This was about re-inventing Trix.” She and her team tested bushels of colored foods—many were vegetables—by baking them into pancakes to speed the process. “Eighteen months is not a lot of time to screen a pantry of ingredients.”
Some colors turned brown or fatigue green when cooked; others tasted awful. Eventually General Mills found combinations that worked and tasted OK. Red Trix, for example, are now colored with carrots and radishes, though they don’t taste like vegetables because most of the flavor cooks off—a key consideration. But it proved too challenging to create green and blue, hence they’re no longer in Trix.
“If we can’t make it taste good, it just doesn’t matter,” says Gallager. Trix was one of seven reformulated cereals General Mills shipped to grocers in January.
Over the next several decades, General Mills opened technical and manufacturing divisions that produced everything from military weapons to high-altitude balloons. In the 1960s, the company went on an acquisitions spree, buying its way into industries that included fashion, outfitting, toys, games and restaurants. It eventually began to shed those industries, and by 1995, General Mills was once again a food company—just as sea changes in demographics, technology and eating habits were beginning to reshape the food landscape.
The company has adapted to changing consumer tastes over most of the past 20 years, and now realizes it needs to move more quickly than before. “You used to be able to go 25 or 30 years with the same model” or type of cereal, says Peter Erickson, executive vice president for innovation, technology, and quality at General Mills. “Now you can maybe go 25 or 30 months.”
“We have entered a time of rapid change, and millennials are leading the way. They’re starting to form families and they’re very aware of food and what’s in it, maybe because they grew up in the age of obesity awareness. So their attitudes are different. Above all, they want simplicity,” says General Mills chairman and CEO Ken Powell. “They want to avoid things like gluten, salt and sugar.” General Mills’ research indicates that today half of all consumers also don’t want artificial ingredients in their food.
The way in which the company is responding to these changes is summed up in one word often heard throughout General Mills’ Golden Valley headquarters: “renovation.”
The company’s R&D budget last year was $230 million. It won’t disclose how much it plans to spend reformulating products this year, but nearly half of its $10.5 billion worth of products sold in 2015 will be renovated in some way for fiscal 2016.
Renovating a big company is a big undertaking, and at General Mills the renovation is operating on multiple fronts. Cost-cutting is part of it. So are acquisitions and investments in food startups. The most ambitious renovations are taking place within the company’s existing brands, notably the reformulation of its cereals.
As anyone who’s ever owned a minivan or a high-chair can attest, a universal staple of the American family diet is Cheerios. Today they come in 10 different varieties and 14 flavors, including the best-selling and turbo-sweetened Honey Nut version, which weighs in with nine times the sugar of regular Cheerios.
Last year, General Mills tinkered with Cheerios by making them gluten-free, in response to one of the hottest dietary trends to come along. Powell says only about 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, which is caused by gluten, but another 3 or 4 percent have varying degrees of sensitivity.
“That’s 13 [million] or 14 million people walking past the cereal aisle,” says Powell. And besides the people who may actually need to avoid gluten, there are, says Powell, “more people experimenting with their diet to feel healthier.” He thinks as much as 7 percent of the population now watches its gluten consumption. After gluten-free Cheerios hit retail shelves last summer, baseline sales climbed 3 percent by the end of November. Powell also disputes the idea that cereals more broadly are in a steady decline. He concedes that last year was a down year and says this year is going to be flat. But he thinks this represents a “dip” rather than a long-term trend. Cereal sales can grow, he says, and not just by subtracting ingredients that consumers don’t want, but by adding things like protein and fiber. The company has made whole grains, which are both popular with educated consumers and recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, central to all Big G cereals. The company also committed in 2015 to removing artificial flavors and colors in cereals by the end of 2017. At the time, 65 percent already were not using artificial flavors and colors; today it’s 75 percent.
Yet if one principle stands above all others at General Mills, it’s that whatever is in the box has to taste good. This has been difficult to do when removing artificial colors, because natural colors are more likely to bring with them additional flavors (see “The Trick with Trix,”). A recent success for the company was a reformulation of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal; after a makeover, its sales are climbing in the 7 percent to 9 percent range. And Big G did it without taking out anything.
Instead, the reformulation added more cinnamon.
This in part reflects what may be General Mills’ greatest overall challenge: finding new customers while keeping the ones who like the products as they are. “The risk of alienating our core consumers is something we work hard to understand and minimize,” Erickson says.
For many reformulations, that’s not a problem because the change is actually a response to consumer feedback. For example, when fans of Nature Valley Crunchy bars complained that they were “too hard,” General Mills made them softer. But every reformulation involves continuous consumer testing of new recipes as it goes along, and the minute somebody says it doesn’t taste good, alarms go off. That’s why General Mills proceeded slowly when it reduced sugar in Yoplait Original yogurt by 25 percent, testing and re-testing it with consumers. After the change, sales rose 15 percent in fiscal 2015 and have continued to rise this year.
Another strategy is to keep reformulations low-key so that consumers don’t notice. Erickson calls it “stealth health.” For some products, reductions in sodium or sugar—reductions that some consumers assume come at the expense of taste—are made incrementally. That was the approach to cutting salt in soups and Hamburger Helper. For gluten-free Cheerios, the company did the opposite, letting everyone know that it wasn’t so much changing Cheerios as it was removing an inadvertent ingredient that wasn’t meant to be there in the first place.
Sales of Chex cereals, which had been declining for five years, grew 10 percent a year between 2010 and 2014 after Big G removed the gluten. But the company has also struggled with some efforts. Lucky Charms, a confection of oats, sugar and marshmallows, is now gluten free, but the company is still searching for a way to replace its artificial colors and flavors with natural agents.
General Mills also has done well with its new-era acquisitions thus far. Among the brightest is the Cascadian Farm organic lineup of everything from granola to oven fries, acquired with the 2000 purchase (for an undisclosed price) of Cascadian’s parent, the Washington-based Small Planet Foods.
Another standout is one of the company’s newest acquisitions—Annie’s, the Berkeley, Calif.-based organic and natural foods company acquired for $820 million in 2014. What has become increasingly important is how consumers perceive the brands, Powell says, and it was Annie’s high-profile organic identity in the marketplace that made it an attractive buy. “They are positioned as a food that’s good for your child and good for you. Their message is clear as a bell.”
And it proved to be a good move financially: Annie’s revenues have been growing in the high single-digits since General Mills bought it, according to Bernstein’s Howard.
In January, General Mills bought Epic Provisions, a 2-year-old Austin, Texas-based maker of sustainably sourced trail mixes and meat-and-fruit snacks marketed to fitness-oriented consumers. Epic—and its $20 million annual revenue—has been folded into the Annie’s unit, giving it at least some theoretical distance from its Big Food owner.
General Mills Chairman and CEO Ken Powell.
General Mills—known for sweetened breakfast cereals, white flour, cake mixes, high-end ice cream and sugar-spiked yogurt—is now also the nation’s fourth-largest marketer of organic foods, a category steaming ahead at double-digit annual growth rates.
But competition has intensified on this front, given how trendy organic has become. Barriers to entry into the food business have fallen, there’s a tsunami of capital to fund new ventures, and social media is revolutionizing marketing, Erickson says. “It used to be that if you wanted to buy awareness for your brand you had to buy TV advertising, which is really expensive. Now you can do it on your cell phone. You can go direct to the consumer at a very low cost.” And one of the messages out there is that you should not trust Big Food. “So we’ve had to react to that, too.”
John Haugen is vice president and general manager of a General Mills unit called 301 Inc., which started out in 2012 as a new business development enterprise. One of its first efforts was an e-commerce product called Nibblr, a subscription snack service that didn’t work. “We learned a lot with Nibblr,” says Haugen. “We learned that innovation is difficult. And it takes a long time.”
Since October, 301 has acted more like a venture capital operation. The idea now is to capitalize small food companies that are exclusively about innovation. “These are companies that have a vision,” Haugen says. “We don’t change that vision. We provide the means for it to be realized.” There are only two companies in the portfolio so far, but Haugen says he hopes to eventually do between five and 10 deals a year.
One of the companies 301 has invested in is Rhythm Superfoods, a 6-year-old Austin, Texas-based maker of kale chips. Haugen won’t disclose the investment’s value, but it was the lead investor in the company’s recent $3 million funding round.
One confounding aspect of the perimeter-shopping trend is that it does not appear to be driven by worries about body weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, fewer than one in three American adults maintain body weights that are normal or below normal. Another third are considered overweight. The largest segment—almost 36 percent—are obese. The numbers are slightly better for children, but still alarming.
Yet marketing food to an overweight population is difficult. One thing consumers are moving away from, says Morningstar’s Erin Lash, “are products that make them feel like they are on a diet.”
Science journalist Gary Taubes has been an architect of the changing food scene. In 2002, Taubes published a story in the New York Times Magazine arguing that the cause of the epidemic of obesity was not fat in the diet, as had been the common wisdom, but rather overconsumption of carbohydrates, especially highly refined carbs and sugars. The article, which overturned decades of orthodoxy about what a healthy diet should consist of, caused a sensation. The high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, a 30-year-old memory, got a second life. For many consumers, carbs were out and protein was in.
Taubes sticks to a low-carb diet himself, but concedes that he feeds his kids Cheerios and says his wife frequently reminds him that “everybody needs a little crunch in their lives.” Ironically, he sees companies like General Mills more as victims of dietary misinformation than purveyors of suspect products.
“These companies didn’t know they were selling unhealthy products,” says Taubes. “It was just the opposite. They were being told that fat was bad and that carbohydrates were good. So cereal makers had reason to believe their products were healthy. Nobody thought refined grains were a problem, and sugar was getting a pass. For a long time, nutrition scientists were on their side. It’s only been in the past 10 years or so that consumers started turning against them.”
In fact, until recently the government’s dietary guidelines did line up nicely for Big G and other legacy cereal brands. In 2000, the wide base of the FDA’s “food pyramid,” which highlighted the foods you should eat the most of, was occupied by the “grains” group: bread, pasta, rice and cereal—a Murderers’ Row of processed carbohydrates.
But the guidelines, which are issued every five years, have evolved rapidly. The pyramid has been replaced by a dinner plate divided, pie-like, into quadrants. Fruits, vegetables and proteins—the store perimeter categories—occupy three of the four quadrants. The fourth touts whole grains and brown rice, and includes a warning about eating desserts and processed-food snacks.
The dietary guidelines may be more valuable to companies like General Mills than they are to consumers, as they offer a road map to evolving trends in eating—something General Mills cares much more about than the science underlying the change in the advice.
Peter Erickson, General Mills’ executive vice president for innovation, technology and quality, says Big G didn’t take gluten out of Cheerios because of the small number of people who can’t eat gluten. They took it out because of the large number of people who would prefer not to eat gluten. “There was a day when we would have argued the point—argued the science,” he says. “But now it’s totally about understanding what consumers want and then delivering it.”
Ken Powell says he realizes part of making such investments work is to hold them at arm’s length, because they are different from the rest of General Mills and because the rest of the company should do a lot of listening to people who’ve made smaller companies grow and know when to leave them alone. Plus, the “taint” of Big Food can be toxic.
A cautionary tale is Kellogg’s ill-fated handling of Kashi, which it acquired in 2000. Kashi continued to operate on its own until 2013, when Kellogg moved it from its home base in La Jolla, Calif., to Kellogg’s HQ in Battle Creek, Mich.—which lasted only a year before it moved Kashi back home.
“We’ve learned a lot,” says Powell. “One thing is that we can’t always act like a big company. We have to go into stores. We have to go into homes and study our customers. We’re trying to pick up the pace. Entrepreneurs have a willingness to take risks. They don’t do big focus-group tests. They don’t hire consultants. But they’re smart. They don’t bet the ranch.”
Most of all, Powell says he likes the entrepreneurial creed he hears all the time: Make your mistakes as soon as possible.
Case in point: General Mills recently tried its hand at e-commerce—and got burned. More than half of the “meals” eaten by American consumers aren’t actually meals consisting of several courses. “The new meal is a snack,” says Powell. So the company developed the Nibblr subscription snack service. Customers signed up for regular deliveries of snack packages; they could choose from about 100 different items. It didn’t work as well as planned, however, and was pulled. General Mills has had better luck with Larabar, the snack-bar company it acquired in 2008. Larabar sells well, he says, because the product has only a handful of easily recognizable ingredients so the brand clicks with simplicity-minded consumers.
Cheerios Protein, launched two years ago in an effort to catch a wave of consumer obsession with protein, may become another case in point. Sales have been only “so-so,” Erickson says, evidently because customers don’t like the “inclusion”—small clusters of soy were added to increase the protein.
Early returns on the company’s efforts are favorable. “So far, so good,” says Carlos Torelli, an associate professor of marketing at the Carlson School of Management, noting that the major assets—the brands themselves—are intact.
The need for speed remains top of mind. For example, General Mills is still playing catch-up in the booming Greek yogurt category, which Erickson admits it missed when Chobani and a couple of smaller brands took off a few years back. “It was a good example of seeing something new in the market and not reacting quickly enough to it,” he says. A team within General Mills was given under a year to develop a new, competing product, from concept to market. The result was Yoplait’s Plenti, a Greek-style yogurt that contains things people like to add to yogurt, such as oatmeal, nuts and seeds. “Five years ago this would have been a two-year project.”
Other products that have been fast-tracked through development and into retail aisles in under a year include Fiber One cookies, a yogurt and a soup from Annie’s, and Nature Valley Protein Granola.
While specific moves may be occurring more quickly, the renovation moves more slowly than its many parts. “Making a transition from who you are to who you want to be takes time,” Edward Jones’ Russo points out.
All of this, really, is nothing new for General Mills, however. “The reason we’ve been here for 150 years is that we keep adapting,” Powell says. “We’re not still here because we never changed anything.”
Cadwallader Washburn builds a large flour mill on the banks of the Mississippi River near Washington Avenue in Minneapolis
Washburn partners with another Minneapolis miller, John Crosby, to form the Washburn-Crosby Company.
At 7 p.m. on May 2, the main “A” mill is obliterated in a massive explosion when a cloud of flour dust ignites, killing the entire night staff of fourteen.
Washburn-Crosby wins the gold medal at an international millers exposition in Cincinnati, launching the company’s “Gold Medal” brand.
To answer letters from customers, Washburn-Crosby invents a representative named “Betty Crocker.”
Inspired by the Kellogg company’s corn flakes, Washburn-Crosby becomes a food company when it introduces a ready-to-eat breakfast cereal called Wheaties.
Washburn-Crosby rescues a failing local radio station, WLAG, and renames it WCCO.
Washburn-Crosby merges with 26 other mills, becoming General Mills.
Biscuits, a dinnertime necessity, get simpler when General Mills introduces Bisquick mix. In the next few years, James Ford Bell leads General Mills into a new era, and flour milling takes a back seat to new products.
The company organizes a Mechanical Division, beginning an era in which General Mills becomes a conglomerate. Food sales decline to less than half of total revenues.
General Mills launches a new puffed cereal made from oats and shaped like little donuts. Cheerioats are a hit, but the makers of Quaker Oats threaten legal action over the name and it’s changed to Cheerios in 1945.
The company joins the war effort, developing torpedoes and gunsights. A chemical division is launched.
The first Betty Crocker cookbook is published.
Working with the University of Minnesota, General Mills invents the crash-proof flight data recorder, now commonly called the “black box” and carried aboard all commercial aircraft.
The General Mills Foundation is created to coordinate charitable support for communities in which the company operates. By 2015, annual giving will reach $150 million a year.
General Mills starts buying its way into new markets, acquiring nearly 40 companies.By the end of the decade the company will make Play-Doh and polo shirts, board games and jewelry.
The company’s Electronics Division builds a deep-diving submersible, the Alvin, that in 1986 explores the wreckage of the Titanic.
The Red Lobster restaurant chain is acquired.
Hamburger Helper is launched. General Mills buys Eddie Bauer, the upscale outdoors outfitter.
General Mills’ first all-natural product, Nature Valley Granola cereal, is introduced.
General Mills launches its own restaurant chain, The Olive Garden.
The spin-off of Olive Garden returns General Mills to a food-only company.
General Mills acquires longtime hometown rival Pillsbury, bringing onboard brands such as Häagen-Dazs, Totino’s, and Old El Paso.
General Mills announces its opposition to an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The company also airs a TV commercial for Cheerios featuring a mixed-race family.
The company buys Annie’s, a Berkeley-based maker of organic pastas and other natural foods for $820 million. With sales in its legacy categories sagging, General Mills also announces plant-closings and layoffs in an attempt to trim $100 million in costs.
General Mills supports President Obama’s climate initiative with a pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2025.
The company delivers on its promise to cut sugar, eliminate gluten, ban artificial flavor and colorings, and make whole grains the primary ingredients of its cereals when it launches reformulated versions of Trix, Reese’s Puffs, Fruity Cheerios, and several others. It also purchase Epic Provisions, a small Texas company that makes natural fruit and meat snacks.