Adding a dash of pizazz Spice profits drooping: McCormick & Co. thinks that in Robert J. Lawless it has "a personable, dynamic, high energy guy" who can help it return to high profitability.

November 20, 1995|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,SUN STAFF

For Robert J. Lawless, the next year will be a time of testing.

Recently tapped to become the new president of McCormick & Co. Inc. Jan. 1, Mr. Lawless will be under pressure to turn around the sagging profits of the giant spice and flavorings company. Success could mean he will move up to the next rung of chief executive officer.

"I think he's going to be a dynamite president," said Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., the Sparks company's chairman who once again assumed the CEO title after Eugene H. Blattman's unexpected retirement last month. "He's a personable, dynamic, high energy guy," Mr. McCormick said. "People just love him. I think he's going to do a great job."

But Mr. McCormick indicated that assuming the president's title won't guarantee that Mr. Lawless will get the nod to be the next chief executive officer, a position that Mr. McCormick would like to relinquish in the next year.

"It's quite possible, but there is certainly no decision," Mr. McCormick said. "It's up to him and other people."

Mr. Lawless, 48, is intent on making his mark with plans to venture into new products, capitalize on the company's brand recognition and work more closely with retailers.

His sudden elevation to the upper reaches of McCormick comes as the result of the fatal heart attack of one top executive and the heart problems of his successor.

On July 14, 1994, Bailey A. Thomas, then the chairman and chief executive, died after having been chairman for only 18 months. After Mr. Thomas' death, Mr. Blattman, then the president and chief operating officer, was named chief executive.

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

Then late last month, after only 15 months as CEO, Mr. Blattman, 59, announced that he was taking early retirement because of a worsening heart condition that left him feeling weak and fatigued on many days.

Mr. Lawless, who became chief operating officer just last August, is stepping into the president's office at a time when McCormick has seen its sales sag and its stock price dip as a result of currency problems in Mexico and increased competition in many areas.

In a presentation to the Baltimore Security Analysts Society Nov. 8, Mr. Lawless acknowledged that McCormick's results have been "disappointing" this year.

But, he added, the company is fighting its way back.

"McCormick is managed more aggressively than ever," Mr. Lawless said.

The athletic-looking Mr. Lawless, who until a few years ago was an avid ice hockey player, speaks crisply of the company's plans, enumerating the proposals and then explaining them in detail.

There is the push for growth by "leveraging" the company's brand name through an $8 million radio campaign started several months ago. The company is also venturing beyond the spice aisles of grocery markets with such products as "Produce Partners" and "Garden Fare" -- food additives placed among the fresh fruits and vegetables.

There is the drive to further "internationalize" the business by expanding companies that McCormick has bought in Asia and Europe.

There will also be efforts to be more innovative, "thinking outside the box," as he says, and to put together a team to see it through.

Teamwork -- nearly a religion at McCormick -- is also a top priority for Mr. Lawless, who will be working closely with Mr. McCormick; Robert G. Davey, the chief financial officer; and Carroll D. Nordhoff, the executive vice president.

"It's not just one individual," Mr. Lawless said. "It's a team. It's a group of people who have pulled together."

Teamwork is a critical part of Mr. Lawless' business persona, according to people who have worked with him.

"He has a humility about him that is very real and allows him to connect with people and be a very effective leader," said Marty Thrasher, who worked with Mr. Lawless at McCormick Canada Inc. and who now is president of U.S. Soup, for Campbell Soup Co. in Camden, N.J.

"It's about the team, it's not about Bob," Mr. Thrasher said. "It's about the organization, it's not about Bob."

Mr. Lawless has been known for a vigorous work ethic, sometimes arriving as early as 6 a.m. and leaving at 8 p.m., said Brenda Adams, his administrative assistant when he was president of McCormick's Canadian operation in London, Ontario, from 1989 to 1991.

"We had a deal that if I could get in earlier than him, I could get his parking space up front," she said. She never got it.

And he also believed that people should enjoy their jobs.

"His very favorite line he said at every meeting was 'Work hard, but have fun,' " Ms. Adams said.

Mr. Lawless also took pains to know all the employees, from the highest to the lowest, Ms. Adams said.

"He knew everybody by name, no matter what the position was," she said. "When he came back to visit, even the girls down in the cafeteria, he would make a special point of going down and talking to them."

"He never raised his voice and he always had a smile," Ms. Adams said.

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