Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc has appointed Laxman Narasimhan as its new chief executive officer, succeeding Rakesh Kapoor. An outsider should herald a fresh start for a group that was once a superstar, but has more recently become a laggard.
Reckitt has eschewed some of the obvious candidates for the role, such as Tesco Plc’s Dave Lewis or Unilever’s Nitin Paranjpe. It has instead chosen Narasimhan, who joins from PepsiCo Inc., where he was global chief commercial officer.
He’s an unknown quantity outside of the U.S. He had a career spanning almost 20 years at McKinsey, before moving to Pepsi. While he was well-regarded there, its change of CEO might have left him as one of the senior executives who missed out on the top job and was therefore looking for opportunities outside of the soft drinks maker.
And Reckitt has some particular challenges. It has endured a tumultuous few years, following the $16.6 billion acquisition of Mead Johnson in 2017.
Narasimhan should at least bring a burst energy to the group. Kapoor was increasingly worn down by Reckitt’s problems.
The first task of the incoming leader is to revive sales expansion, which has stalled.
He must also complete the integration of Mead Johnson. It did seem as if it was improving, but hit another bump in the road last year, in the form of disruption to a plant in the Netherlands. Not having been involved in the purchase, Narasimhan can take an impartial view on the best way to tackle what increasingly looks like the wrong deal to have done.
Narasimhan must both fit in with Reckitt’s culture, and evolve it. It has a particular hard-driving approach, where cost-cutting to bolster margins is at the forefront. That has gone out of fashion with investors, who want a better balance between top line and bottom line growth. The new CEO will have more scope to warn that margins must come down to facilitate the investment needed to turbocharge sales.
Kapoor reorganized Reckitt into two divisions: one focused on household products, such as Cillit Bang cleaner, and the other on consumer health treatments including Nurofen painkillers. As well as being CEO, Narasimhan will directly lead the health arm.
But the outgoing CEO hadn’t yet taken that to its logical conclusion: separating the two units, possibly through a sale of hygiene and home. While Kapoor had earmarked this as a job for mid-2020, it will fall to his successor to complete the task.
A split is not a given: new leaders don’t usually like to take an ax to their empires. There is also a question mark over whether Narasimhan can break up the group, even if he wanted to.
As my colleague Chris Hughes has argued, this reinvention could be hampered by the aftershocks from the Justice Department’s indictment of Indivior Plc, the pharma business Reckitt spun off back in 2014. The drugmaker faces a $3 billion fine after U.S. prosecutors alleged it lied about the dangers of its opioid addiction treatment.
That Narisimhan didn’t have any hand in the Indivior spin off means he has no baggage associated with the original deal, which would impede finding a solution. Having been based in the U.S., he should also have experience of dealing with regulators there.
Indeed, this underlines the benefit of appointing an outsider – to both the company and the broader European consumer goods sector – he has much more latitude to take the difficult decisions that Reckitt needs to regain its stellar status.
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Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.
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