Blattman steps down as CEO of McCormick 'Difficult decision' is attributed to heart problem

October 27, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,SUN STAFF

H. Eugene Blattman, the president and chief executive officer of McCormick & Co. Inc., yesterday announced he will resign at the end of the year because of heart problems that have left him feeling weak and fatigued on many days.

Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick, the grandnephew of the company's founder, will assume the duties of CEO on Jan. 1, 1996. And Robert J. Lawless, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer, will become president.

"Certainly it was a difficult decision for me to make, but at the xTC same time not being able to bring the full resources to the job really forced me to make the decision that I have made," said Mr. Blattman, who became CEO only 15 months ago.

His resignation is the second time in less than two years that the management of the world's largest spice company has been shaken.

On July 14, 1994, Bailey A. Thomas, then the chairman and chief executive of McCormick, died of a heart attack after being

chairman for only 18 months. Following his death, Mr. Blattman, then the president and chief operating officer of the Sparks-based company, was named CEO.

At the same time, Mr. McCormick came out of retirement to become chairman.

Mr. Blattman, 59, has been suffering for the last 20 years from atrial fibrillation, a condition characterized by episodes of rapid and irregular heart beats. Former President George Bush also has suffered from the condition and was hospitalized for it in May 1991.

While his condition is not treatable, it is not life-threatening, Mr. Blattman said. But the attacks have become more frequent in recent months, leaving him exhausted, he said.

"Twenty years ago it would only last for just a few minutes and it would be months apart," he said. "Now the frequency has increased to the point that they may be just a week apart and they last one to two days."

While he can still function during the attacks, he has to push himself, Mr. Blattman said. "On those days people often remark that I look very tired and, of course, I'm generally exhausted by the end of the day."

The seventh chief executive officer in McCormick's 106-year history, Mr. Blattman was the first not to be a long-time employee. Working at such companies as General Foods Corp., Rogers Foods, Gentry International and McKesson Corp., he joined McCormick in 1989 when he became president of McCormick's Gilroy Foods in California.

Unlike his extroverted predecessor, Mr. Thomas -- who was known to dress up in costume for company functions -- Mr. Blattman had a low-key, methodical approach, reflected in a computer file listing 4,000 people he had met over the years.

He would regularly consult the file to refresh his memory before ++ meetings and gatherings, surprising people by inquiring by name about family members.

In his retirement, Mr. Blattman said he will move back to Northern California to be closer to his seven children and 10 grandchildren.

During his brief time as chief executive officer, Mr. Blattman presided over a company besieged by its toughest competition in a decade.

The main antagonist for McCormick, which had annual sales of $1.7 billion last year, has been Burns, Philp & Co., the Australian food conglomerate that owns Durkee French Foods, the nation's No. 2 spice company. In the last seven years, the company has grown from near-insignificance to become a force with about 10 percent of the world's spice market, mostly by acquisition.

The tough competition, coupled with failed efforts to acquire major businesses in Europe, resulted in stagnant profits and a 24 percent decline in McCormick's stock price last year from $24 a share on Jan. 7, 1994, to $18.25 a share on Dec. 30, 1994.

But a rally in food stocks this year helped McCormick shares move back up to reach a high of $26.50 on Oct. 17. The company's stock fell by $1.125 a share yesterday, closing at $24.125, in a market that was generally down.

Trying to meet the intense competition, McCormick a year ago announced that it was cutting 600 jobs, or 7 percent of its work force, including 150 in Maryland.

Despite the trials of the company, analysts said, Mr. Blattman was more a victim of circumstance than a cause of the problems.

"I think he did as well as could be expected," said Kurt Funderburg, a food industry analyst for Ferris Baker, Watts Inc., a regional investment banking firm.

He noted that Mr. Blattman made the tough decision to restructure the company. "You have to give him some credit for )) that," Mr. Funderburg said.

Analysts also said they were encouraged that Mr. McCormick will take the CEO's position.

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