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Happy Ms Vegemite spreads the healing

As head of Kraft Foods, Rebecca Dee-Bradbury is doing what she does best - transforming organisations, writes Miriam Steffens.

Burgers, bourbon, barbecues and bread spreads may not have much in common, but for Rebecca Dee-Bradbury, they have been the focus of much of her adult life.

After a fast-moving career spanning senior positions at McDonald's, Lion Nathan and Barbeques Galore, the 44-year-old head of Kraft Foods in Australia and New Zealand is keen to talk about her take on management, corporate turnarounds and leadership.

But asked about her CV with the timeline of her ascension to the helm of some of the nation's leading brands, such as Vegemite and Cadbury Dairy Milk, she hesitates.

''I don't want people to think that they have to be a managing director at 33, and that they have to be a director in their 20s to do something extraordinary,'' she says.

''One of the things that is really important to how I do things is that I'm incredibly sort of normal and real about who I am, so I want to lead with that connection rather than what could be potentially intimidating.''

Dee-Bradbury has proven her mettle in the rough and tumble world of business to become one of Australia's most powerful female chief executives, responsible for $1.7 billion in annual sales and about 3650 employees. Meeting her, you very quickly get the impression that she views herself as a new type of leader.


''The DNA of a leader needs to be fundamentally different from what it was in the past,'' getting staff onside through encouragement rather than cutthroat management, she explains. ''You need to be the person you want other people to be.''

And throughout the lengthy interview, she never loses her focus, staying on message even when asked about how it actually feels being in charge of Vegemite - a brand so much at the heart of Australia's identity that newcomers are force-fed the national spread as a rite of passage.

''It is humbling and inspiring,'' she says. ''I'm very lucky that my childhood and my life has had both Cadbury Dairy Milk and Vegemite very much part of it.''

The Melbourne-born executive originally wanted to go into medicine. But when a life-threatening blood disorder kept her in hospital for a year at the age of 16, she reconsidered.

''If you get through a terminal illness, you tend to come out of it with a different perspective.'' Watching friends in business, ''I liked the harmony of it being about people and strategy and looking towards future possibilities … and now I've sort of married the two, because I'm a transformative sort of leader. I tend to heal organisations.''

Dee-Bradbury got her career start with McDonald's. Coming out of Monash University business school, she moved to Sydney in 1989 to work as a marketing executive for the burger chain under the tenure of the late Charlie Bell.

He became one of her ''breakthrough mentors'', and in her early 20s she was ''doing things that frankly at a young age most people wouldn't even contemplate''.

After a few years though, Dee-Bradbury began to wonder whether it was the power of the Golden Arches or her own ability driving her success. She met Kevin Roberts, then a Lion Nathan director, who encouraged her to jump ship.

Lion Nathan's joint venture with PepsiCo was underperforming against Coca-Cola, and Dee-Bradbury oversaw a McKinsey-advised change program. Later, as marketing director, she drove the development of low/mid-strength beer brands such as Tooheys Blue.

''She always stood out as someone who was driven to make things happen … and was relentless in getting the job done,'' recalls Roberts, who today heads the global advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi, praising her ''intuition, creativity and operational excellence''.

Her first international chief executive role was at the spirits and wine distributor Maxxium, where she restructured the business in the Asia-Pacific region to increase sales and profits, and repositioned Jim Beam as the biggest-selling whiskey in the market.

Having made herself a name as a turnaround expert, she was offered to run Barbeques Galore in 2006 by its new private equity-owner, Ironbridge Capital.

Dee-Bradbury is loath to join the public criticism of private equity with its slash-and-burn image. ''There's a sense of immediacy in private equity that … encourages you to work even faster and harder against the outcomes that you want to achieve.''

Joining Barbeques Galore, she revived the company, reducing its product range, slashing costs and marketing the fun of a good barbie rather than the functional features of the box.

Yet the company's US expansion was caught short by the financial crisis, and the troubled American arm was hived off in 2008.

Looking after only the Australian business, which had been successfully overhauled, ''wasn't my sweet spot,'' the manager says.

Dee-Bradbury took two years off to pursue her and her husband's wish for a sibling to their then 6-year-old son, Lincoln. Three months after giving birth to a daughter, Skye, she was approached by a headhunter about running Kraft.

''It was really hard, [but] I knew that was for me. Doing what I do and transforming organisations and bringing people together to create something extraordinary is part of what I do. And me doing that makes me a great parent,'' she says.

''Particularly as a female you need to look at yourself as an asset and invest into that asset at critical times in your career.''

Dee-Bradbury's start at Kraft in early 2010 coincided with the completion of the global food giant's £11.9 billion hostile takeover of Cadbury, which tripled the local business in terms of sales, and took the number of employees from 650 to more than 3000.

Integrating the two companies was a massive task, having to win over Cadbury's workers in their wounded purple pride, while at the same time jump-starting sales growth. The first steps included putting in place a strategy to bolster core brands, and stepping up innovations.

Kraft has pumped more than a quarter of a billion dollars into its manufacturing over the past three years, bringing out one innovation a month last year. New products such as Cadbury Mousse chocolate and Philadelphia cooking cream now generate almost 11 per cent of net revenue.

Boosting its brands and devising growth plans with Woolworths and Coles has helped shield the company in the supermarket wars, Dee-Bradbury says. And while makers of staples such as bread are squeezed by discounting and private labels, Kraft benefited from the fact it had some of the nation's most loved brands in the ''impulse expendable consumption'' category.

Listing her achievements at the Australian and New Zealand arm of the global food maker, Dee-Bradbury says Kraft is now the nation's fastest-growing food manufacturer, having increased sales about 4 per cent last year, and reversed three years of share declines to control about 50 per cent of Australia's $2 billion chocolate market.

Such is the company's clout, she is the only food industry representative on the Prime Minister's Taskforce on Manufacturing.

The planned split and renaming of Kraft's international snack business, to be called Mondelez, is likely to result in a name change for the Australian company later this year.

Dee-Bradbury predicts the local arm will expand further, although it is ''too early to comment'' on whether that would include acquisitions.

But what's next in store for Ms Vegemite herself? A practising Buddhist, who meditates half an hour every day, she says it's ''always been less about me reaching out to a role than the role reaching out to me''.

''The objective is to focus on what you're doing now and maximise the contribution you can make, and if you do that, by definition you get directed to the area you're meant to be. And within a [global] organisation like Kraft, it's likely to be international.''