Work again spices McCormick's life Former CEO thrust back into lead role by Blattman health woes

October 28, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,SUN STAFF

A retirement of golf and boating in sunny Florida doesn't seem to be in the cards for Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick, the chairman of McCormick & Co.

After spending 45 years at the giant spice company that bears his name -- six of them as chairman and chief executive officer -- Mr. McCormick in January 1993 moved to Stuart, Fla., the "sailfish capital" of the country, to wile away his time at his house that sits between a golf course and a marina.

But then tragedy struck.

Bailey A. Thomas, Mr. McCormick's successor at the Sparks-based company, died of a heart attack on July 14, 1994, and Mr. McCormick became the chairman, helping out the newly elevated president and chief executive, H. Eugene Blattman.

Mr. McCormick was able to maintain a semi-retired lifestyle in the last 15 months -- spending about 75 percent of his time in Florida. But that too came to an end with the announcement on Thursday that Mr. Blattman, 59, is retiring on Jan. 1 because of a heart ailment that has left him fatigued and weak on many days.

With Mr. McCormick picking up the extra responsibility of CEO at the beginning of the year, his retirement is over. He will be working with Robert J. Lawless, 48, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer, who will become president.

Once the transition is finished, Mr. McCormick, 67, expects to be spending 75 percent of his time in Baltimore with only a few trips to Florida each month.

"I did not ask to come back," Mr. McCormick said. "Having been dealt that deck, I'm excited about it and we have a lot of challenges, and I'm up to it."

His wife Jimi, 56, also has adjusted to the move, looking forward to being closer to the couple's six children and 12 grandchildren.

But she also admitted to some anxiety about living on a more permanent basis at the couple's Ashland house in Baltimore County -- a small, 180-year-old, two-bedroom building with no garage.

"Buzz has forgotten how to chip ice off of cars," Mrs. McCormick said. "We're going to buy a garage with a small house attached."

How long he will be at the top of the company is uncertain.

"My objective is that it is not a long time," Mr. McCormick said. "I'm expecting it will last at least a year."

But McCormick is more than just a company to him, it is a family heritage.

The grand-nephew of the founder of the company, Mr. McCormick's nickname, "Buzz," is a reference to the company's old "Bee" brand, bestowed on him at the hospital where he was born by a nurse who made the connection between the familiar label and the infant.

Working at the company since he was in his 20s, Mr. McCormick moved up the corporate ladder, becoming chairman and chief executive officer in March 1987.

With Mr. Thomas as his president and chief operating officer, the "Buzz and Bailey Show" produced sterling results for the 106-year-old company.

With a strategy of jettisoning the company's real estate operation and concentrating on its core business of spices, the fTC team oversaw the tripling of the net income, soaring to $95.2 million in 1992 from $30.6 million in 1987, and its stock price shot up fivefold.

"I would say Gene [Blattman] has not had the benefit of the tide running with him the way that Bailey and I did for six years," Mr. McCormick said. "We just had a barrel of fun. I just look at Gene, and I don't think he has a barrel of fun."

Now the world's largest spice company, with $1.7 billion in annual sales, faces a dramatically different competitive environment.

It is now hounded by an upstart Australian firm, Burns, Philp & Co., which owns the nation's No. 2 spice company, Durkee French Foods.

In the last seven years, Burns has come out of nowhere to capture 10 percent of the world's spice market, mostly by acquisition.

"We've never been in a more competitive situation, and I think it's going to be tougher this time around," Mr. McCormick said. "But that makes it a challenge."

And some stock analysts are glad to see him take it.

"It's a plus that he is coming back into the daily operation of the company," said R. Bentley Offutt, president of Offutt Securities Inc., a Hunt Valley-based institutional research and brokerage firm. "I think he will be up to the task."

However, major changes may not be in the cards.

"I don't think it will have any impact on the company, to be frank with you," said Nomi Ghez, an influential food industry analyst for Goldman Sachs.

"McCormick, who will be running the company now, was extensively involved in forming the strategy of the company. He has been an active chairman since Bailey died, and I don't expect any special change in direction."

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