In a week when Sara Lee announced the departure of its chief executive through illness and reported its full-year numbers, it was perhaps natural that industry watchers were speculating about the future for the US food group.

Sara Lee said last Monday (9 August) that chairman and CEO Brenda Barnes would be leaving the job in order to recover from the stroke she suffered in May. In her years at the helm, Barnes led a significant restructuring at Sara Lee to focus on a clutch of food and beverage operations, including coffee, bakery and convenience meats.

However, sales have stagnated in recent quarters and Wall Street analysts have been mulling over what else Sara Lee’s management could do to breathe fresh life into the business. Whoever Barnes’ successor will be – and Sara Lee says it is looking both inside and outside the business for its new CEO – they will face questions about the company’s future direction.

Last month, reports emerged in the US that Sara Lee had appointed advisers to study the options for its North American bakery division, which has been described as the “achilles heel” of the business. Sara Lee has not publicly commented on the reports and, when it reported its full-year results last week, one company executive insisted that the North American bread business was “well-positioned” to show improvements on a fiscal fourth quarter when fierce competition in the US hit sales.

Nevertheless, amid concern over wheat costs, Sara Lee’s North American bread business is likely to face continued pressure and speculation over its future could re-emerge, particularly with a new CEO in the hot seat.

How well do you really know your competitors?

Access the most comprehensive Company Profiles on the market, powered by GlobalData. Save hours of research. Gain competitive edge.

Company Profile – free sample

Thank you!

Your download email will arrive shortly

Not ready to buy yet? Download a free sample

We are confident about the unique quality of our Company Profiles. However, we want you to make the most beneficial decision for your business, so we offer a free sample that you can download by submitting the below form

By GlobalData

However, in some quarters, there are greater concerns than those over Sara Lee’s bread business or its prospects in the first quarter of fiscal 2010/11. Sara Lee’s guidance for the first three months of the new fiscal year disappointed parts of Wall Street but some analysts remain pessimistic about the company’s underlying business.

Morningstar analyst Erin Swanson said Sara Lee’s results confirmed her belief that “a lack of brand strength, as well as weak consumer spending, will hinder the packaged food firm’s sales growth and profitability”.

Few things seem to be hindering Nestle’s sales and profits and the world’s largest food maker published robust full-year results last week. More telling, however, was Nestle’s bullish defence of its presence in emerging markets. CFO Jim Singh said researchers had been comparing the percentage of sales Nestle generates in the developing world as a proportion of its total turnover with those of its rivals and had claimed the Swiss food giant was “under-exposed” to emerging markets.

Not so, insisted Singh in a detailed defence of Nestle’s business in the BRIC markets and beyond. “Nestle does not lack scale in emerging markets – in fact, the opposite is true. Our scale is unmatched,” Singh insisted in a presentation that sent a timely message to the company’s peers: under-estimate Nestle at your peril.

This week, the reporting spotlight turns from the world’s largest food maker to the largest retailer. Wal-Mart issues its second-quarter and half-year numbers tomorrow and all eyes will be on the retail giant’s same-store sales in the US. That key metric was down in the first quarter and industry watchers will be looking for signs of a turnaround. 

Wal-Mart’s international sales, meanwhile, have been bubbling along nicely and the retailer’s announcement will shed more light on the performance of stores from the UK to China.

One market where Wal-Mart has long been rumoured to be ready to enter is Russia. Wal-Mart’s imminent move into the market is one of those stories that is always reportedly set to happen – but until now has never materialised.

Those rumours have often included a link to Russian retailer Lenta, one of a clutch of local companies often cited as ripe for a takeover from international firms. Lenta has enjoyed some buoyant growth this year but in-fighting among shareholders threatens to derail the business.

After speaking to some of the key figures around the boardroom table at Lenta, our latest Talking shop column makes for interesting reading.