When the dough would no longer rise at Vie de France Corp. last year, the French owners of the McLean company decided to change bakers. Out went President Lloyd J. Faul, a retired Army brigadier general who spent 11 years building the bakery company only to see its business falter badly in 1985. In came President Richard J. Sharoff, a former manager at the Sara Lee Corp. and General Foods Corp., who was hired by Vie de France to turn the company around.
Sharoff, a 40-year-old executive with a business school degree, said that when he sat down in his chair at Vie de France last August, he found a company that had lost its gastronomical mission.
"When I came here, one of the biggest sales initiatives that was under way was selling cookies to Burger King," he said. "To me that's a classic example of what Vie de France is not about."
Sharoff commissioned a marketing study to determine what had happened to Vie de France, a company that built its reputation on croissants and other French bakery products but then expanded into muffins, fruit tarts, cookies and frozen baked goods. Sharoff wanted to know why profits were sliding and what products were right for Vie de France.
"The major conclusion was that we needed to go back to basics. . . . We had walked away from our customer base, expanded too quickly," Sharoff said. "We've decided we're going to concentrate on making the best possible French bread and croissants, with all other products being secondary in importance."
"We're going to concentrate on the customers we feel are part of our heritage . . . and not try to go beyond our limitations and be all things to all people in all markets," he said.
When he joined Vie de France, Sharoff said, he found a 15-year-old company that had all the earmarks of a small, entrepreneurial company but few of the sophisticated trappings of the large, modern corporation.
For instance, Sharoff said he found that about 100 people reported directly to the president, the heads of the bakeries were responsible for production, sales and everything else, and personnel turnover was high.
So Sharoff began to do all of the hard-nosed things that executives do when they are trying to turn a company around.
He closed several bakeries and converted others to distribution depots, leaving 15 wholesale bakeries and seven depots. He appointed regional managers, set up sales departments within the bakeries and reorganized the pay and bonus systems.
He also hired a high-level group of executives with financial management and marketing experience.
Perhaps the key decision was to shift the emphasis at Vie de France from production to marketing -- with an eye on several clearly defined customer groups. These include supermakets that sell freshly baked French breads, supermarkets that use the Vie de France frozen dough products in their store bakeries, specialty retailers such as wine-and-cheese shops and upscale restaurants.
Sharoff is especially annoyed that Vie de France, which once had a lock on French bread and croissant sales to Washington's leading restaurants, lost that edge because of inattention and competition. Efforts are under way, he said, to get that market back.
Sharoff's best customer is the restaurant division of Vie de France, headed by Robert N. Blessing Jr. It operates 55 restaurants, retail bakeries and cafes that are big consumers of Vie de France products.
The first of what the company calls a "new generation" of bakery-cafes recently was opened on M Street in Washington. Five others will open shortly around the country. Two will be in Maryland.
Sharoff said the production and wholesale side of the company produces 60 percent of Vie de Frances sales while the restaurant and retail side turns in 40 percent. Ninety percent of profits come from the wholesale side, 10 percent from retail operations.
None of the recent changes at Vie de France came easily or cheaply.
Counting personnel costs and writeoffs, the reorganization at Vie de France will cost about $3 million. But Sharoff said he believes that the company is poised to start climbing back up the profit ladder when the 1988 fiscal year begins July 1.
Vie de France annual sales hit $63.1 million in fiscal 1985, the year profits began to slide.
Eliot H. Benson, research director at Ferris & Co., estimates that earnings for fiscal 1987, which ends June 30, will come in at 10 cents a share. That would compare with 30 cents a share in 1986, 52 cents in 1985 and 58 cents in 1984.
Benson said he thinks that the worst is over at Vie de France and that "the company is now in the early stage of a major earnings recovery."
Vie de France went public in 1984 at $11.50 a share. The price of the stock got as high as $15.25. But it began a rapid slide during the end of 1985. Since then, it has traded in the $5 to $6 range. A major chunk of stock, 54 percent, is owned by Grands Moulins de Paris, France's largest flour miller.
The price of Vie de France stock has been bolstered by its 22.5 cents annual dividend, which at a $5 a share price, gives the stock a yield of 4.5 percent.
While other stocks were soaring in the early part of this year, the prices of utility stocks were either not moving or were dropping.
The key reason was that yields on bonds were starting to rise. Utility stocks traditionally trade on their yields and when bond yields go up, so do utility yields. However, in order to boost the yields on utility stocks, the prices of the utility shares must fall.
One of the utilities that has been knocked down a bit too far was Baltimore Gas & Electric, according to analyst Perry A. Corsello of Wheat, First Securities. As a result, BG&E shares are suitable for "income-oriented accounts seeking current income accompanied by long-term capital appreciation," he said.
"In our opinion," Corsello wrote recently, "the stock's current yield of 6.1 percent coupled with dividend growth potential in the 5 percent range should provide investors with a total return in excess of 11 percent."
A recent Maryland order reduced the company's rates by $78.3 million but, Corsello said, nearly $64 million relates to the lower 1987 tax rate. "Tax expense savings will flow through to utility customers and have a minimal effect on the company's earnings. . . . In aggregate, only $14.5 million, or 18.5 percent of the total rate decrease should immediately affect BG&E's earnings," he said.
Meanwhile, Corsello said, BG&E's cash flow and balance sheet remain strong, construction spending should remain manageable and nonutility operations should continue to contribute to the profit growth.
At BG&E, electricity accounts for 90 percent of the utility's operating income; natural gas accounts for the remainder. Electricity is generated by nuclear fuel (53 percent), coal (43 percent) and oil (3 percent).
Residential customers accounted for 37 percent of BG&E's electricity sales, commercial accounts accounted for 16 percent and commercial-industrial users for 47 percent.
Ameribanc Investors Group of Annandale and Cardinal Savings and Loan Association of Richmond have called off their proposed merger. Under the plan announced May 7, Ameribanc said it would acquire Cardinal for $6.25 a share, or a total of $14.7 million.
James H. Harrison, president of Ameribanc Savings Bank, said officials of the two thrifts had agreed that they would complete their agreements by June 1 or the deal would be off. As it turned out, Harrison said, it would have taken more time than was available for Ameribanc to study some of the loan situations at Cardinal.
Ameribanc has not had much luck with mergers. Last fall, Ameribanc said it would acquire Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Richmond but that, too, was called off.
On the other side of the fence, Ameribanc announced last summer it would be acquired by NCNB Corp., a major North Carolina bank. Although that, too, was canceled, it became the focus of a controversy between Ameribanc's Dutch investors, who favored the merger and Bill Savage, president of Ameribanc Investors, who opposed the merger.