This is the second story in a two-part series examining the turnaround of Hain Celestial under CPG veteran Mark Schiller. The first story discussed how the organic and natural products maker, once a disjointed collection of brands and close to having its stock delisted, cut money-losing offerings, prioritized innovation and improved its credibility with retailers.
For years, Pinnacle Foods would gather hundreds of employees responsible for peddling its Wish Bone, Mrs. Butterworth’s and other offerings into a room for the annual sales meeting, where the buzz inevitably coalesced around a few presenters.
One of the most popular wasn't the CEO, or a musician or comedian brought in to energize the crowd. Instead, it was an unassuming executive whose mix of marketing prowess, product ideas and "professional-quality standup" captivated the audience.
The sought-after person was Mark Schiller, the company's chief operating officer, who delivered an "edgy, topical and memorable presentation" that pumped up the sales team and outlined priorities for the company's brands in an "engaging and memorable way," recalled then-CEO Bob Gamgort. Schiller playfully poked fun at himself and other members of the senior team and would sometimes insert other employees into newsworthy and famous images during his presentation.
“The way he was able to captivate people by getting them to listen to the marketing stuff and the business content, by having people just laugh, was great,” said Gamgort, now the top executive at beverage giant Keurig Dr Pepper. “People would say, 'When is Mark speaking and is he coming back again next year?' He’s unique that way. There aren’t lot of serious business people who have that side to them.”
The right man for the job?
The rare blend of humor, affinity for pop culture references and business savvy has been instrumental in charting a successful career path for Schiller, culminating in his appointment three years ago as CEO of Hain Celestial, a leading manufacturer of organic and natural food products.
"The interesting thing is, I never wanted to be CEO," Schiller, both soft-spoken and deeply introspective, said in an interview. "I'm a good operator and I just like running the business. I knew as CEO, it was going to require different skills."
The responsibilities of a CEO extend far beyond the daily operations. They must spend time with shareholders, keep in close contact with the board, converse with analysts, pay close attention to the interests of their employees and wade through the day-to-day volatility to position the company for growth and future success.
Schiller confessed he's had a good career so far and he didn't want the "last chapter of my career to be a failure, and so, yeah, I was nervous about" taking the job at Hain. After initially planning to take some time off after leaving Pinnacle in November 2017, he consulted with about a dozen people, including former CEOs, peers, coaches and friends.
"The interesting thing is, I never wanted to be CEO. I'm a good operator and I just like running the business. I knew as CEO, it was going to require different skills."
CEO, Hain Celestial
But the chance for a new challenge won out. Schiller said he thrives on "going into places that make me uncomfortable" and that he gets "great satisfaction out of conquering things that I'm afraid of." As CEO, he's been able to leverage the strengths he has amassed throughout his career as a turnaround operator while stretching his abilities into areas that previously were untapped.
Those who have worked with Schiller describe him as smart, ambitious and not afraid of taking on a job that perplexed others before him. He's adept at taking a product that has fallen on hard times and finding new and innovative ways to reposition it to better meet the needs of the modern-day consumer.
A tall task ahead
Schiller had his work cut out for him when he joined Hain Celestial in November 2018.
After several years of robust growth, sales and margins at the manufacturer of Celestial teas, Greek Gods yogurt and Terra chips were deteriorating. The New York-based company, assembled through a series of acquisitions during a 25-year period, was a collection of roughly 60 disjointed brands. More than a third of them were losing money.
Its perch as the undisputed leader in the health and wellness space was threatened as other CPGs, eager to capitalize on growing demand for better-for-you-products, flooded the category. And Hain was fresh off financial headaches of its own that included going a year without reporting earnings, an investigation from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over its accounting practices and the near delisting of its stock.
Today, Hain is thriving under Schiller's leadership, with margins and gross profit up sharply during his tenure. More consumers are purchasing the company's products compared to two years ago, and repeat purchases for its so-called "get bigger brands" — products that have the most mainstream potential — have surged. Investors have taken notice, pushing the company's stock up from roughly $21 a share in November 2018 when Schiller took the helm to near $40 today.
Engaged Capital founder Glenn Welling, whose firm is Hain's largest shareholder with 15% of its stock, praised the job Schiller has done growing the company's brands and improving its margins and sales. Hain is one of the best-performing stocks in the food industry since Schiller took over, he noted.
"As both a director and investor, I think we are really pleased with Mark's leadership and performance," said Welling, who sits on Hain's board. "He's taken a business whose brands were not growing anymore and whose profitability was declining, and today we have 20 No. 1 and No. 2 brands in our categories."
Gamgort, who served as Schiller's reference for the job at Hain, said his former executive's CPG experience and innate ability to make big decisions with "courage and speed" made him perfectly suited to turn around Hain.
"There are a lot of people who would go into that job and fail. Most people would fail," Gamgort said. "He is one of the very few who would go into that job and succeed."
From foosball to Pinnacle
After graduating from Columbia University's business school in 1985, Schiller spent 11 years in various roles working at Quaker.
Phil Marineau gave Schiller, whose previous job experience was in marketing, his first shot at a management position at Quaker in 1987. At the time, the oats giant was encouraging its executives to gain experience in other parts of the company to improve their value.
"That was a tough sell getting people to go," said Marineau, a business executive who has held top management positions at Levi Strauss, PepsiCo and Dean Foods. Schiller, however, "had the courage and the nerve to give it a try and move over into operations and manufacturing. And I think it was a reflection of his ambition, his desire to run a business someday and have a set of skills that would make him better at it."
Schiller left Quaker to become president of the world's largest manufacturer of coin-operated pool tables, electronic darts, air hockey and foosball games, and later served as co-president of a child care franchiser. In 2002, he joined PepsiCo for the beginning of an eight-year run where his responsibilities included working on convenience store foods for Frito-Lay and overseeing Quaker, which had been acquired a few years earlier by the snack and beverage giant.
But in 2010, Gamgort at Pinnacle came calling, and Schiller's trajectory up the corporate ladder quickly gained momentum.
Despite a portfolio of iconic brands like Duncan Hines cakes and Vlasic pickles, many of Pinnacle's offerings were viewed as tired and in need of a reboot. Its sales totaled about $1.5 billion, and Blackstone, which had recently invested approximately $700 million, was looking for improvements.
Gamgort, who was brought in by Blackstone to improve Pinnacle’s performance, made Schiller his first big recruit. He was keen on hiring Schiller because of his coveted mix of big-company experience and marketing and innovation background, and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and dig into an otherwise messy, high-risk situation.
Schiller would be promoted several times at Pinnacle, culminating with his ascension to chief commercial officer. Gamgort said Schiller's astute understanding of the consumer and where they were going was key in helping turn around Pinnacle's brands. He recalls Schiller's stint overseeing Duncan Hines and how he was able to take a great product, uncover the problem holding it back and devise a way to solve it.
Schiller observed the brand was largely geared toward serving groups of eight to 10 people when the average American household was less than three, meaning people were either wasting food they threw out or scarfing down leftovers they would feel guilty about. He was instrumental in getting Pinnacle to introduce single-serve offerings.
"The difference I saw with him versus others was he was energized by this small company with brands that weren't all that beautiful, that need to be renovated in an environment that was unproven," said Gamgort. "He would lean in and want to get his hands on it rather than other people that got scared off by it. That’s why he did really well there and that’s why he’s doing really well at Hain Celestial — because that was a bit of a mess that he had to take over, to be polite.”
Seven Wonders of the World
Much of what makes Schiller successful inside the office comes from his personality and interests outside of it.
The father of five enjoys hiking, skydiving and traveling. He has viewed the Seven Wonders of the World, including the Great Wall of China, which he saw just before the onset of the pandemic. "There's an amazing world out there and I want to see it," he said.
Even though he doesn't play an instrument, Schiller is very passionate about music, and has attended roughly 5,000 concerts. He once once saw The Who play a gig in someone’s back yard, watched an impromptu Grateful Dead concert in Amsterdam, and sat next to Christie Brinkley and Kris Kristopherson at a Billy Joel performance. He was even asked to have drinks with Bono after a U2 concert — he couldn’t go because his son, who attended the event with him, was underage.
Schiller's travels as CEO frequently put him in new cities, where he gets a kick out of discovering new bands and telling his friends about them before they become popular — a similar trait he has used at Hain to discover new products or untapped potential in the health and wellness space before his competitors.
Gamgort said Schiller is particularly attune to pop culture, movies and TV shows. When the pair would travel during their time at Pinnacle, the discussion would often deviate from work into reminiscing about shows they used to watch growing up, the swapping of movie quotes, or the real-life drama with celebrities. Schiller had a knack for spotting even the most obscure celebrity, such as a forgotten contestant on a reality show, he said.
"There are a lot of people who would go into that job and fail, most people would fail. [Mark] is one of the very few who would go into that job and succeed."
CEO, Keurig Dr Pepper
While working at a food company and interests outside the office may appear compartmentalized, Gamgort said they have a significant amount of overlap that can benefit a corporate executive. "It's all about part of the same thing to figure out where the consumer is going, what are the trends and how do we make sure we stay on top of those," he said. "People who are the best marketers are very curious about everything, not just business."
Schiller, who turns 60 in October, said running Hain is likely to be his last CEO position. He doesn't want to leave the business world entirely. Instead, he plans to continue sitting on corporate boards, working as a consultant and mentoring young executives.
"I don't plan on doing this until I'm 70. And so I love what I'm doing. I'm having a great time and we're having good success," he said. "I'll be around for a while but this is likely my last hurrah."