Hamish Maxwell, who steered Philip Morris diversification, dies at 87

April 23

Hamish Maxwell, who steered Philip Morris during its 1985 purchase of General Foods and 1988 takeover of Kraft, milestones in transforming the tobacco company into a consumer products conglomerate, died April 19 at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 87. The cause was bladder cancer, said a daughter, Graham Russell.

In 37 years with Philip Morris, culminating with his tenure as chairman and chief executive officer from 1984 to 1991, Mr. Maxwell helped the company expand within and then beyond the tobacco business.

In 1981, he played a key role in helping New York-based Philip Morris beat competitor R.J. Reynolds to acquire a 25 percent stake in Rothmans International, the British cigarette maker.

As chief executive four years later, he dipped into the company’s deep cash reserves to spend $5.8 billion for General Foods, maker of Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee and Birds Eye frozen foods.

Then, in 1988, he led Philip Morris in a hostile bid for Kraft that ended with a $13 billion buyout that created, for a time, the world’s largest consumer products company. In so doing, he achieved what Time magazine called a “coup” with “an unusually smooth resolution” during the height of the leveraged-buyout era.


Hamish Maxwell (Courtesy of Philip Morris)

Philip Morris’s initial $11.5 billion bid — worth $90 a share — was rejected by Kraft’s board, which responded with a dividend offer to shareholders that it valued at $110 a share.

Rather than bid higher, Mr. Maxwell attacked the feasibility of the dividend plan and questioned its “real value,” the New York Times reported.

Kraft’s chairman and chief executive, John M. Richman, accused Mr. Maxwell of “pressure tactics to buy Kraft on the cheap,” according to the Times. The two executives met in Chicago, where they made peace and, within hours, agreed to a purchase price of $106 per share.

The merger, which made Kraft General Foods a unit of Philip Morris, brought together familiar brands, including Kraft’s Miracle Whip salad dressing and Velveeta cheese, and Philip Morris’s Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer.

Michael A. Miles, who stayed on as head of Kraft after the acquisition by Philip Morris, succeeded Mr. Maxwell in 1991, becoming the first head of the company who lacked a tobacco background.

Philip Morris in 2003 became Altria Group, based in Richmond. It spun off Kraft, located in Northfield, Ill., in an initial public offering in 2001. Today, Altria is the largest seller of tobacco in the United States.

Hamish Walter Hyslop Maxwell was born Aug. 24, 1926, in Liverpool, England. His father, Alexander Maxwell, known as Sandy, was a tobacco-leaf dealer and the Britain’s tobacco controller during World War II.

Mr. Maxwell served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, studied at the University of Cambridge and then took a job with the British travel agency Thomas Cook & Sons, first in London, then in the United States.

His father helped get him an introduction to Alfred Lyon, head of Philip Morris, which hired him at its Richmond plant. He then worked in New York and, from 1969, in Melbourne, Australia, as head of the Asia-Pacific division of Philip Morris International. He became chief executive of Philip Morris International in 1978.

After his tenure at Philip Morris, he spent five years as chairman of London-based WPP Plc., today the world’s largest advertising agency.

His wife, Georgene Mathewson, known as Gee Gee, died last year. Survivors include two daughters; a sister; and four grandchildren. In addition to his Palm Beach home, he had residences in Brooklyn Heights and in Quogue, N.Y., on Long Island.

In 1987, Fortune magazine named Mr. Maxwell No. 24 on its list of “biggest bosses.” It reported that he didn’t appear troubled by the growing public disdain for cigarette smoking.

“Of course we’re concerned about smoking and health and the public’s perception of the issue,” he said, according to the magazine. “But I have no feelings of guilt, no trouble sleeping at night. There was a time when people thought drinking was much worse a sin than smoking. Both can be abused, but each gives pleasure and has social value.”

Russell said her father was a cigarette smoker until about 10 years ago.

— Bloomberg News

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