The speculation over the future of Metro Group’s chief executive intensified last week, casting doubts over the direction of the world’s fourth-largest retailer.

The German retail giant’s CEO, Dr Eckhard Cordes, has lost the backing of one of the company’s key shareholders, Haniel. The Metro chief’s contract runs out next October and the head of Haniel, the German industrial holding company that owns 34% of the retailer, has already told Cordes that he no longer has his support.

Cordes, however, said last week that he is confident he can extend his contract and said his moves to reorganise Metro were not yet complete. And, in a further twist, over the weekend it was reported in Germany that a second key shareholder in Metro, the Schmidt-Ruthenbeck family, wants Cordes to stay.

The apparent tension at the top of Metro has echoes with Cordes’ appointment as chief executive in 2007. Back then, Cordes, who ironically was then Haniel’s chief executive, had clashed with the then Metro chairman and CEO Hans-Joachim Körber over the retailer’s strategy. Körber decided to quit and Cordes took charge of a business facing a number of challenges.

Four years later, the jury is out over Metro’s performance under Cordes. The uncertainty over Cordes’ future is said to be due to concern that Metro has failed to find buyers for department store chain Kaufhof and hypermarket arm Real. The retailer reported “record” earnings in 2010 in March but the results and its plans for international expansion this year did not completely impress investors. And Metro has notably had problems with its cash-and-carry business in the UK. According to Sanford Bernstein analyst Christopher Hogbin, Metro’s shares are down by more than 40% this year.

However, Hogbin argues that Metro’s business remains “fundamentally attractive”, pointing to the “strong positions” of the retailer’s cash-and-carry operations in Europe and Asia, improving margins at Real and Kaufhof and the benefits of the ‘Shape 2012’ programme introduced by Cordes to improve productivity and lower costs.

Across the pond, one senior food industry executive at a company going through a period of change did leave his post last week – much to the surprise of industry watchers. CJ Fraleigh, the CEO of Sara Lee’s North American operations, resigned from a business that is in the process of splitting itself in two. Fraleigh had been lined up to lead one of the two companies to be created from the split and the surprise announcement did hit Sara Lee’s shares.

The company refused to be drawn on whether Fraleigh’s departure was due to any disagreement over of the plans to divide the business in two and a spokesman insisted the split was still due to take place in the first half of next year. However, commeting on Fraleigh’s departure, chairman Jan Bennink did admit that Sara Lee believed a “different approach” was needed to “transition the North American business into a pure-play company”.

The future of another US food manufacturer looking to split in two could become clearer later today when the deadline for Ralcorp Holdings to begin takeover talks with suitor ConAgra Foods expires. Ralcorp has rattled ConAgra with its rejection of three takeover bids and its refusal to hold any negotiations. ConAgra, which has a bid on the table worth US$5.18bn, has given Ralcorp until 5pm ET today to start discussions.

Ralcorp believes its own plan to split itself in two will offer more value to its shareholders but there have been signs some investors are unhappy with its unwillingness to negotiate with ConAgra. If the deadline passes without talks being held, Ralcorp shareholders will demand answers.