ST. LOUIS — Rob Vitale was born into the world of business.
He watched his dad toil as a divisional president for 3M Company where, as a child, Vitale sat in on meetings with top executives and spent countless hours tagging along to factories.
As a teenager, Vitale observed his father participate in a management-led buyout of a small maker of space heating appliances and power tools. It gave him first-hand insight into the world of private equity that would play a pivotal role in his career nearly 20 years later.
These experiences captivated Vitale and provided him with a real-world business education as he watched C-suite executives assess markets, risks and opportunities.
“From a very early stage, I grew up in a business-minded environment,” he recalled. “It was somewhat ingrained in me.”
Decades later, Vitale remains firmly entrenched in business as the chief executive officer of Post Holdings, a $5 billion market cap food conglomerate that is a category leader in everything from refrigerated sides and bagged cereal to liquid eggs and cut potatoes.
People who work with Vitale at Post and advise him on Wall Street describe the 57-year-old as a strategic thinker, a skilled multitasker and a prudent allocator of capital who has quietly transformed the Grape-Nuts and Fruity Pebbles cereal manufacturer into a dominant force in the food space.
Vitale leads Post using a corporate strategy, both in its product mix and financial approach, that is largely unheard of in the food industry.
Post, which is publicly traded, is run by Vitale more like a private equity firm where he prioritizes the longer-term success of the business and pays less attention to the more immediate volatility that ensues from his decisions.
Similar to his predecessor at Post, Vitale focuses on assembling a diverse mix of brands that value generating cash flow over earnings and extracting synergies from the company’s portfolio rather than building scale in any single category.
“If you want to know who [Vitale] is, he’s not afraid of complexity, not afraid of structure, not burdened by what other folks are doing,” said Adam Taetle, an investment banker with Evercore who has worked with Post on more than a dozen acquisitions and financing deals. “So many guys want to fit into the box and do things the traditional way, and he loves sort of mixing it up and looking at it not traditionally. He has a completely different DNA.”
Vitale’s unorthodox way of running Post has proven to be a boon for his company and its shareholders.
Post sales have risen from $4.6 billion in 2015, its first full fiscal year with Vitale at the helm, to about $6 billion in 2022 — a figure that excludes about $2 billion from businesses that have been divested or separately capitalized. The company’s shares have increased 15% annually since Vitale took over, far outpacing an 8.6% yearly jump in the S&P Food & Beverage Index during the same period.
‘We would have done anything’
Several years before he was orchestrating billion-dollar deals at Post, Vitale was gaining invaluable job experience away from the C-suite that helped hone his work ethic and gave him a clearer view of his future.
One summer in high school, he oversaw maintenance for a clay tennis court where he endured stifling 100-degree days working outside. In college, Vitale sold men’s clothing to customers who would often ask him for advice on what to wear, something people who know him today “would find laughable,” he confessed.
“I don’t want to overstate how impactful these were,” Vitale said. “I was doing hourly manual labor, which I have a great deal of respect for, but I realized I didn’t want to do it.”
While Vitale admits to initially not being a “terribly diligent student,” he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business from St. Louis University in 1988 and a master’s degree in business from Washington University in St. Louis six years later.
After working as a senior associate at KPMG, Vitale moved to Boatmen’s Bancshares in 1993, where he ran corporate finance. When Boatmen’s was acquired in 1996, Vitale and a partner, Leo Haas, started a private equity firm.
The young entrepreneurs, then in their early 30s, had no particular focus on what they were looking to acquire. “We would have done anything,” Vitale recalled.
As fate would have it, the first company they stumbled upon happened to be in food, a manufacturer of dehydrated potato products called Idaho Pacific Corporation.
He can imagine strategies and tactics to an unusual degree, managing multiple large projects at once. He continues to impress me as CEO.
Chairman, Post Holdings
To finance the acquisition, the partners needed to raise cash. A friend suggested reaching out to industry veteran Bill Stiritz who had just retired as the CEO of pet food maker Ralston Purina. The connection proved to be a key turning point in Vitale’s nascent career.
“He took an interest in me, and we developed a very close relationship. And that kind of was the pivotal relationship for me,” Vitale said. “It was like a second graduate degree.”
Stiritz and Vitale have been inseparable ever since, both professionally at Post — Stiritz remains chairman at age 89 — and personally, where they are partners in a local thoroughbred racing facility.
In 2011, Stiritz, who joined Post as its CEO, asked his young protegee to become the company’s CFO just before the food manufacturer was spun off by private-label food maker Ralcorp. He made the offer despite the fact that Vitale had no experience working at a large company, or in the food industry.
Under Stiritz’s tutelage, the finance executive learned about allocating capital, running a public company and building and growing a business — skills that resonated with him and remain firmly entrenched in how Vitale operates Post today.
Stiriz said when Post was spun off, he identified three potential successors — noting that Vitale “was uniquely superb.” In an email, Stiriz added that Vitale is highly intelligent and called out his creativity as a skill that sets him apart from other executives.
“He can imagine strategies and tactics to an unusual degree, managing multiple large projects at once,” Stiritz said. “He continues to impress me as CEO.”
Stiritz retired from the CEO role in late 2014 when he handed over the reins to Vitale.
The change came at a time of significant disruption for Post.
The company was in the middle of an M&A binge to bulk up its portfolio and minimize its dependence on cereal, where it was a distant No. 3 player behind industry behemoths Kellogg and General Mills.
Since Vitale took over as CEO, Post has spent billions of dollars to purchase brands including Weetabix, Bob Evans refrigerated sides and Peter Pan peanut butter.
Earlier this year, Post entered the pet food segment for the first time with a $1.2 billion purchase of products such as Rachael Ray Nutrish, 9Lives and Kibbles ‘n Bits from J.M. Smucker.
Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan, said Vitale and his M&A pedigree have been ideal for Post. “If you think about what their strategy is, he’s a good match,” Gordon observed.
Vitale, who often wears jeans and a sweater or polo shirt to the office if he’s not meeting with bankers, is a reflection of the company he leads. He’s content to operate under the radar, which is fitting for Post — the food manufacturer’s own notoriety in its hometown of St. Louis is often overshadowed by beer producer Anheuser-Busch just 20 minutes away.
Vitale is notoriously publicity-averse, careful not to draw attention to himself through media interviews, conference appearances, or Wall Street events. Post’s quarterly earnings calls with analysts are among the shortest in the food space, typically averaging fewer than 30 minutes.
“What drives the value of your business is how much cash you generate in your earnings growth, not how good you are on TV,” Vitale quipped.
A system of checks and balances
During his tenure at Post, Vitale has transformed the once fledgling cereal company into a major food player with brands spread across multiple categories. One constant throughout the expansion, however, has come from within Post’s leadership ranks.
Scott Harrison, a portfolio manager at Argent Capital Management in St. Louis, whose firm owns Post’s stock, praised Vitale’s time at the company but noted the food maker has excelled in building a deep executive bench to support him.
“Management at a company typically doesn’t come down to one person,” Harrison said. “Post has developed talent. They continue to focus on that as they’ve grown throughout the years.”
Vitale’s team includes a chief operating officer and general counsel who have been with the company since it was spun off more than a decade ago. Executives are regularly promoted from within.
The familiarity inside the C-suite not only fosters a deep understanding of the business, Post executives said, but a work dynamic where there is comfort in offering critical feedback and an appreciation for the unique idiosyncrasies of each individual.
Post Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Zadoks, who started the same day as Vitale, said the pair are in many ways complete opposites.
While Vitale has a much more optimistic outlook, Zadoks prides himself on playing the role of devil’s advocate — telling his boss what he thinks, not what he wants to hear. When the pair travel, Vitale often wants to squeeze in a little sightseeing, while for Zadoks, travel is strictly business.
“His relationship with me enables me to speak my mind in a way that at other organizations I haven’t been able to,” said Zadoks, who previously worked at businesses in the rehabilitation and semiconductor sectors. “We disagree as often as we agree, so if he weren’t open to that feedback I wouldn’t have been here as long as I’ve been.”
Vitale confessed he’s not the most organized or patient person, and he routinely jumps onto the next idea before the previous one has been fully completed.
Zadoks and Diedre Gray, who joined Post in 2011 and became its general counsel a year later, bring a system of checks and balances to Vitale’s less structured, stream-of-consciousness way of thinking. Gray is notorious for having a detailed checklist for everything.
“We approach things from a very different perspective,” Vitale said. “My chaos makes her crazy. Her orderliness kind of makes me crazy, too. My optimism makes Jeff [Zadoks] crazy. His pessimism makes me crazy. It works.”
Harbir Singh, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the lengthy tenure for many of Post’s top executives enables them to be more agile and positions the business to have a greater likelihood of thriving in the face of rapidly changing consumer tastes and market disruptions.
For some companies, having the same team could be a drawback by limiting the emergence of new ideas and fresh opinions — an issue that so far hasn’t appeared to have cropped up at Post.
“Here, tenure is less of an issue, one would almost say it’s more of a slight positive,” Singh said, pointing to the performance of Post’s shares compared to the S&P 500 since 2012. “This is an industry where there’s a lot of change, so maybe that’s one reason why Post is doing better than many because they’ve been stable.”
A feeling of vulnerability
Vitale’s adamant about having a “style”and deeply values being authentic with employees. He regularly sends memos to his staff updating them on progress the company is making on issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion.
In 2020, as the country was transfixed on the beating death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, close to where Post’s two largest divisions were located, Vitale reached out to workers to condemn the incident. He also sought feedback on ways his company could improve when in comes to inequality and racial discrimination. Vitale set up an inbox for employees to email him directly.
Each quarter, Post workers at its headquarters pack into a cafeteria for a town hall meeting. They pepper Vitale with questions, ranging from why an acquisition was made to the financing used in a particular deal, along with more controversial topics, such as the company’s work-from-home policy after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rob spends a lot of time with people who tell him he’s wrong and the minute he stops doing that is the minute we change into a more traditional company and kind of end up rudderless.
Executive vice president and general counsel, Post Holdings
Vitale is not privy to the questions beforehand at his request, and employees can submit them anonymously.
“It forces me to be, first of all, vulnerable to the employees, which then leads to authenticity, and that will cause them to be more loyal to the greater cause,” Vitale said. “I don’t try to come across as the most polished. I just try to speak whatever I think the truth is, and sometimes it’s not what they want to hear.”
Gray said the quarterly event is “refreshing. It’s challenging. It is scary,” but “it’s always exciting and authentic.”
During regular work meetings, Vitale is known for calling on people who have a reputation for offering a critical eye. It is not uncommon for employees to be spontaneously pulled in from the hallway and asked for their input.
“Rob spends a lot of time with people who tell him he’s wrong and the minute he stops doing that is the minute we change into a more traditional company and kind of end up rudderless,” Gray said. “He doesn’t have a lot of ego about his mistakes. He’s very willing to say ‘I think I was wrong about how I thought about that.’ "
For Vitale, he said it’s “ridiculous” not to approach running a business that way. “Why would you go get the most talented people you can get and then just tell them, ‘Think like me? ’ ”
For newer employees, it often takes time for them to reach a point where they are comfortable disagreeing with a boss described by some as intimidating; a characterization that still perplexes Vitale.
“Nothing shocks me more than when someone tells me that they’re intimidated, and it happens frequently,” Vitale acknowledged. “I will be critical, but if you don’t screw things up, you’re not playing close enough to the edge.”
Vitale admitted to his own share of mistakes and uncertainties that he has grappled with while leading Post. He regrets waiting too long to act on a few deals, such as the purchase of Bob Evans, or “numerous” acquisitions he wishes he would have made that worked out well for other people who completed them.
“You’re never going to be perfect. You’re never going to get every acquisition right. You’re going to miss some,” he said. “Frankly, most of the regrets [I have] are risks not taken.”
Vitale has long struggled with how aggressively to push innovation at Post. He’s chosen to “err on the cautious side” by adhering closely to the company’s existing portfolio rather than extending its reach into “more transformative and more innovative” products, such as new brands of cereal or side dishes.
“I’ve never been sure we got that balance right,” he said.
Still, Vitale hasn’t been shy about looking for new opportunities. Post was the only CPG food company to create its own SPAC during the boom for the investment vehicle two years ago. But in May, Post unwound the blank check company after failing to find an acquisition target. Post lost about $10 million on the bet, the amount of money it spent to organize and capitalize the SPAC.
“We don’t fear … failure,” Vitale said, calling his SPAC a “great idea” that was doomed by bad market timing. “If you're not experimenting and making some mistakes, then how do you know that you’re pushing the organization to where it can go?”
At Post, Vitale is known to be easily reachable. He often responds to texts in bed at night and is willing to spend a few minutes talking with other Post executives on his way back from grabbing a coffee with cream at Starbucks during the weekend.
It’s not uncommon for him to work from home or drive to the office about 15 minutes away if he’s in St. Louis on a Saturday or Sunday, several people said.
Vitale has a reputation among friends and colleagues for eating an early dinner and rising before the sun comes up — often getting out of bed before bankers and other people he corresponds with on the East Coast.
“More than anybody I’ve ever met, his brain never turns off. He’s constantly thinking about what’s next, what’s around the corner, who’s doing what,” Zadoks said, comparing Vitale to the lead character played by Russell Crowe in the movie, A Beautiful Mind, where the gifted mathematician is processing numbers as they float through the air.
Energizer Holdings CEO Mark LaVigne said Vitale, who is a member of his board, has an innate ability to quickly distill complex situations and focus on what’s important for the battery and car care products company.
Energizer, also headquartered in St. Louis, benefits from Vitale’s expertise in deal-making, financing and knowledge of the CPG space, including his understanding of customers and retailers. LaVigne said he texts Vitale when he’s “wrestling with a naught situation” to see if his peer has a few minutes to talk.
“Someone who’s in a similar seat [as a CEO] at another entity, who has a good track record in those areas, absolutely carries a great deal of weight in the discussions we have,” LaVigne said of Vitale’s role on Energizer’s board. “He brings a lot of different viewpoints from his history that really does [assist our company] as we aspire to achieve many of the things that Post has done.”
Vitale admits he “loves” his job and has tried to develop interests outside of work, something he’s “frankly struggling with right now.” He doesn’t have a hobby. He has watched most of what’s on Netflix, and he calls himself a “s-----” golfer. An avid reader who gravitates to history, biographies and fiction while eschewing books on business, Vitale said he can only open or listen to so many.
“Getting on calls and talking about deals, that’s not work for him,” said Taetle with Evercore.
Taetle, who speaks with Vitale roughly five times a week, said the Post CEO gets deeply involved in each deal on a granular level, including the due diligence and the intricacies of the financing — something many top executives tend to avoid.
“He is the most deal-oriented CEO in food by a mile and a half,” Taetle said. “There’s no second place.”
Playing to your strengths
Post has organized its business in a way that plays into Vitale’s strengths and interests.
The food manufacturer is divided into five segments. They are Post Consumer Brands, which includes cereals and pet food; U.K. cereal brand Weetabix and Bob Evans refrigerated sides. The remaining two segments house its private label offerings and foodservice.
Each operation has its own management team. While Vitale keeps a close watch on each division, Post’s structure allows him to take a wider view of the company so he can plot strategy and observe broader changes taking place in the packaged goods sector.
“What he does incredibly well is game theory. He’s like three steps ahead,” said Darcy Horn Davenport, CEO of BellRing Brands, a protein shake, powder and bar maker that Post took public in 2019. “We are so deep in our category and our business, but he’s able to actually step back and see across different categories and divisions.”
Davenport remembered seven years ago when BellRing, then known as the Active Nutrition business unit at Post, was looking to add another co-manufacturer to help it meet surging demand for Premier Protein and other brands it sold.
Active Nutrition desperately needed the extra capacity, but executives wanted to tread carefully so they didn’t sour relations with a long-time supplier that remained crucial to its business.
Davenport said she discussed the situation with Vitale, now BellRing’s chairman, who provided pointed insight on how to navigate the challenging situation. He raised several key questions about the potential impact on BellRing’s ongoing co-manufacturer relationship and offered solutions to help it maintain a strong relationship with both the new and existing partners.
Fame and fortune
Sitting in his office at Post’s headquarters, surrounded by mementos of the company’s brands near his desk and historical images hanging on the wall, Vitale emanates an aura of contentedness in his professional life.
But Vitale, who said he would remain CEO for “another nine if [the board] lets me,” appears to embrace the reality that change is inevitable.
When Vitale started at Post, people who reported to him were older and had more experience in the CPG business. Today, those longevity dynamics have reversed.
Vitale admitted he has given some thought to who might succeed him at Post, due largely to the fiduciary responsibility he has to shareholders. “I hope my successor is in high school,” Vitale said with a laugh.
His time as CEO is approaching its ninth year, a noticeable feat in corporate America where the average period leading a company is five years.
Singh at the University of Pennsylvania said having a CEO like Vitale in place for nearly a decade can be hugely beneficial because it allows the individual to get acclimated to the business before implementing his or her strategy.
A long CEO tenure also can give investors enough time to assess the individual’s performance in the position and evaluate whether the company under his or her leadership is a place where they want to invest their money.
Vitale admits to being approached to look at other roles in places such as London and New York. But he has rebuffed those temptations, valuing instead the job he loves, the familiarity and ease of living in St. Louis and the closeness of friends and family over the prospects of additional fame and fortune.
“I’m having such a good time doing what I’m doing that I don’t spend too much time worrying about what’s next,” Vitale said. “It’s a job that intellectually challenges me, economically rewards me. I would do this forever.”