There's a new man in Barbie's life

Mattel picks Eckert as chairman, CEO after 3-month search

Executive suite

May 18, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Beleaguered toy maker Mattel Inc. said yesterday that its board of directors had unanimously elected Robert A. Eckert as chairman and chief executive officer, ending a three-month external search after the forced departure of Jill Barad.

Eckert, 45, resigned Tuesday as president and chief executive of Kraft Foods, the food division of Philip Morris Cos. Eckert's appointment takes effect immediately.

"This is a positive step for Mattel; they are putting an end to the uncertainty and bringing in a well-respected manager," said Rick Fradin, an analyst with William Blair.

As head of Mattel, Eckert, who had been with Kraft Foods since 1977, faces the challenge of getting the maker of such classics as Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price toys back on its feet. In February, Mattel's directors forced Barad to resign after three rocky years.

Under Barad's direction, Mattel had posted several quarters of losses, stemming in part from the much-criticized acquisition of the Learning Co. software company.

The company also suffered from a host of defections in top management.

Sean McGowan, an analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison, said he was encouraged by the appointment, noting Eckert's positive reputation as well as his track record in turning around Kraft's Oscar Mayer lunch meats division.

"You don't market bologna the same way you market Barbie," said McGowan. "But food and toys are both competitive, and they are both driven by marketing."

McGowan, who raised his recommendation for Mattel to a buy from a hold after the announcement, noted that a previous Mattel head, John Amerman, who ran the company from 1987 to 1997, came from Warner Lambert's Chiclets chewing gum division.

William Rollnick, who will now step down as Mattel's chairman, said: "At Kraft, he [Eckert] clearly demonstrated his leadership, successfully managing a business with $17.5 billion in revenues for 1999, while increasing its sales and profits through leveraging the growth of existing brands and by introducing and building popular and profitable new products that have become branded staples."

Some of Eckert's first tasks will likely include shoring up top management ranks after a slew of departures as well as overseeing the sale of the Learning Co. In April, Mattel of El Segundo, Calif., said it wanted to sell the Learning Co., and might be willing to settle for less than one-third of the $3.5 billion Mattel paid to acquire the company.

The software industry has been abuzz with rumors of an imminent sale. Havas Interactive, a division of France's Vivendi SA; Internet incubator Knowledge Universe LLC; Microsoft; Time Warner; and Infogames Entertainment SA have all been mentioned as possible buyers.

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