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Burger King CEO to take Heinz reins after deal

| Thursday, April 11, 2013, 8:48 a.m.
Bernardo Hees, CEO of Burger King Corp., will take the same job at Heinz once the pending sale of the iconic Pittsburgh company to a team of investors including Warren Buffett and 3G Capital is complete.
Bernardo Hees, CEO of Burger King Corp., will take the same job at Heinz once the pending sale of the iconic Pittsburgh company to a team of investors including Warren Buffett and 3G Capital is complete.
Heinz ketchup neon sign on The Senator John Heinz History Center,  Pittsburgh
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Heinz ketchup neon sign on The Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh

Investment firms buying H.J. Heinz Co. made the first of what could be major changes coming to the Pittsburgh ketchup maker with the appointment Thursday of a CEO.

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital said Burger King CEO Bernardo Hees will replace longtime Heinz CEO William Johnson when the $28 billion buyout closes in the July-September quarter.

Hees, 43, has led Burger King since 2010, when 3G Capital bought the fast-food chain. He is credited with turning around the Miami-based company by slashing costs, revamping the chain's menu and starting a marketing campaign intended to help it pose a greater threat to rival McDonald's.

Whether a similar shakeup is in store for Heinz remains a matter of speculation. Hees is a partner in 3G, the managing partner in the Heinz deal. The firm has a history of aggressive cost-cutting and overhauling at companies it buys.

Yet Jack Russo, an analyst with Edward Jones in St. Louis, said he doesn't expect big changes at Heinz, in part because of the work Johnson did to make the company a global success in the 15 years since he became CEO in 1998.

“He's really taken this company to a higher level,” Russo said.

Johnson joined the company in 1982 and is in line to walk away with a $212.7 million severance package, one of the richest ever awarded an American executive.

When the buyout was announced in February, Johnson said he wasn't ready to retire. He is scheduled to discuss his future with 3G leaders after an April 30 shareholder vote, according to a statement from Berkshire and 3G.

Johnson was not available to comment, Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said.

Hees could not be reached. He said in a statement that he is excited to move to Pittsburgh and looks forward to “working in close partnership with the company's senior management, employees and customers to strengthen the business both domestically and internationally.”

Russo said 3G would be wise to find a way to keep Johnson, even in a consulting role.

“They would be very smart to lock him up somehow,” he said.

But Johnson, 64, might not want to stay if he's not in charge, Russo said. “He may want more of an active involvement in whatever he is doing.”

Berkshire and 3G have pledged to keep Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh. Alex Behring, 3G managing partner, said in February that the acquisition differed from the investment firm's other deals because Heinz is a healthy company with market-leading products across the globe.

The investors plan to accelerate Heinz's growth, possibly through acquisitions, which could benefit the headquarters operations in Pittsburgh.

Hees, a Brazilian who ran the largest railroad and logistics company in Brazil before Burger King, oversaw radical changes during his tenure at the burger chain.

At the company's headquarters in Miami, for example, he eliminated executive offices in favor of open spaces. Hees sits at a desk outside the elevators on the seventh floor, appearing almost like a receptionist, flanked by his executive lieutenants.

A big board in front of their desks is updated with daily reports on sales and customer traffic, globally and by region. Executives, including Hees, have color-coded boards by their desks displaying their annual goals. The idea is that everyone in the company can see others' goals.

“Bernardo is a proven executive with an unparalleled track record of delivering results,” Behring said in a statement. “His combination of experience, leadership skills and broad understanding of the food industry make him the ideal leader to drive the next chapter in Heinz's storied history.”

Behring was not available to comment, 3G said.

Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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