Nestle Chief’s Strategic Vision Shrouded by Death at L’Oreal

As new Nestle SA Chief Executive Officer Mark Schneider prepares to lay out his strategic vision for the Swiss food giant, his plans will be overshadowed by a changing of the guard at another European consumer-goods giant — L’Oreal SA of France.

Nestle owns 23 percent of the French cosmetics maker, and the death of heiress Liliane Bettencourt raises questions about the future of the investment. Hedge-fund chief Dan Loeb wants the Nespresso coffee owner to sell the stake, giving it the financial ammunition for a bigger transformation than anything analysts expect from Schneider’s first major presentation to investors.

Mark Schneider

Photographer: Michele Limina/Bloomberg

Nestle management faces increased pressure to “clarify its thinking on the company’s mid-term relationship with L’Oreal,” UBS analysts led by Pinar Ergun said in a note. While the base case for now is the status quo and a takeover bid is a possibility, a disposal is the most likely course in the mid- to long term, she said, “given the diverging strategic paths of the two companies over the last decade.”

Schneider, who took over as CEO in January, has already stolen some of his own thunder by announcing a share buyback worth as much as 20 billion Swiss francs ($21 billion) and acquiring coffee and fresh-food businesses, as well as moving to sell Nestle’s U.S. confectionery business. Nestle is seeking growth in businesses such as coffee, water and pet food as it confronts a consumer backlash against sugary snacks that contributed to a June warning that sales growth this year will be the weakest in at least two decades.

Loeb’s Third Point has called for more radical change after investing some $3.5 billion this year in the Swiss company, demanding a higher operating-margin target and a sale of its $28 billion L’Oreal stake.

Investor Day

Analysts said they expect Schneider won’t immediately budge on those issues when he takes the stage in the ballroom of London’s Corinthian Hotel on Tuesday before representatives of about 145 investors. He told Bloomberg Television in February, before Loeb disclosed his investment, that Nestle’s stake in L’Oreal is “highly strategic” and there is no short-term urgency to alter the relationship.

Under an agreement with Bettencourt’s family, the biggest shareholder in the French company, neither side can increase its stake for six months after her death. Nestle could sell its shares, but it has promised to act “in concert” with the family. Any change in shareholdings could also affect a third party — French pharmaceutical company Sanofi SA, in which L’Oreal holds 9 percent.

Instead of announcing transformational changes, Nestle may simplify its matrix management structure in which product categories crisscross geographies, according to several analysts. One possibility would be to move the heads of three regional zones — Wan Ling Martello, Marco Settembri and Laurent Freixe — from the Vevey, Switzerland, headquarters overlooking Lake Geneva to be closer to their markets in Asia, Europe and the Americas, according to Sanford C. Bernstein’s Andrew Wood.

“It’s devilishly hard to drive change and leverage scale in a landscape complicated by multiple local fiefdoms and baronies,” wrote Martin Deboo, an analyst at Jefferies. “Try watching ‘Game of Thrones’ for a primer.”

While Loeb has said he wants constructive dialogue as a long-term shareholder, Nestle’s baby steps raise the risk of an eventual showdown. The hedge-fund chief has never been one to shy away from a fight, and this is the largest investment he has made in a company since he founded Third Point in 1995.

Seeking Growth

Loeb has urged Nestle to increase leverage to at least 2 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, yet Schneider undershot that, raising his target to 1.5 times. The CEO has warned that excessive cost-cutting isn’t a sustainable strategy because it won’t produce growth in new businesses.

Representatives for Nestle and Loeb’s Third Point declined to comment on the investor day. A Nestle spokeswoman also declined to comment on Bettencourt’s death, beyond expressing the company’s condolences.