Burger King CEO to take over Heinz after 3G, Berkshire Hathaway acquisition

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An executive who spent the last few years shaking up the home of the Whopper -- retooling senior Burger King management, cutting costs, revamping the fast-food chain's menu, shifting to a focus on franchises, pushing for international growth and even dumping the King mascot -- is headed to Pittsburgh.

Bernardo Hees, 43, will leave his job as CEO of Miami-based Burger King Worldwide to take over as chief executive of Pittsburgh ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. when a $28 billion cash-and-debt acquisition is completed in the next few months, barring any unexpected events.

Mr. Hees is also a partner in 3G Capital, which is part of a joint venture with Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway to buy Heinz, and his selection seems likely to signal significant change for the Pittsburgh food company known for brands such as Ore-Ida, Smart Ones and Plasmon.

He'll be only the seventh CEO in the century-plus history of Heinz.

Whether he will bring the tactics he used at Burger King to his new PPG Place office remains to be seen, but Mr. Hees' appointment answers the question as to whether Bill Johnson, the sixth CEO of Heinz, would continue in that role.

The only certainty is that Mr. Johnson, 64, who also serves as chairman and president of the Pittsburgh food company with $11.6 billion in revenues, will be sticking through the closing of the deal.

"3G Capital and Berkshire Hathaway expect to discuss with Mr. Johnson his interest in a continuing role with the company post closure following the shareholder meeting on April 30," the official announcement said.

Shareholders need to approve the deal, which will give them $72.50 per share. The sale also still needs the approval of foreign regulators from several countries, although Heinz has already won antitrust clearance in the U.S., Brazil, India, South Korea, Japan and Israel.

The deal could close quickly. Burger King on Thursday announced Mr. Hees will continue as CEO until either the deal is done or July 1, whichever comes first. Then he'll become vice chairman of Burger King.

When the Heinz sale was announced in February, 3G Capital managing partner Alex Behring emphasized that the Pittsburgh company was not in need of the kind of overhaul required by some past investments. "This is a company that is doing extremely well as it is and has been doing extremely well for a number of years prior to our involvement," he said.

Still, 3G Capital's track record is one of looking for ways to run more efficiently and profitably. At the fast-food chain, the new ownership served up change quickly. On Oct. 19, 2010, 3G Capital announced it owned Burger King. A week later, a new management team was unveiled.

In December 2010, the company cut more than 200 jobs at its headquarters but reaffirmed that it wasn't going anywhere. Jose Tomas, the head of human resources and communications, was quoted in a Miami Herald story on the cuts as saying Mr. Hees was about to close on a house in the area. "We're committed to Miami," Mr. Tomas told the newspaper.

Keeping Heinz in Pittsburgh has been a theme of this latest acquisition. The joint venture partners agreed to include a commitment to staying in the city in the contract. In Thursday's announcement, Mr. Hees was quoted as saying, "On a personal level, my family and I are excited to be relocating to Pittsburgh and look forward to calling this great city home."

Burger King reported $2 billion in 2012 revenue, down from $2.3 billion the previous year, but sales at restaurants that had been open at least a year rose 3.2 percent compared with a 0.5 percent drop in 2011, generally seen as a sign that customers are coming back.

In addition to cost-cutting, Mr. Hees' tenure at Burger King has been marked by a willingness to try new things, from smoothies to salads. In October, the company began testing a home delivery program in some markets.

He is not expected to be available for interviews until the deal closes, spokesmen for Heinz and Burger King said, but he has already taken a question related to the acquisition.

In February, the day after 3G Capital and Berkshire Hathaway made their Heinz plans public, Mr. Hees participated in a conference call with analysts to discuss Burger King's fourth quarter results. An analyst asked him about synergies between the two companies, if they both had the same owner.

Mr. Hees replied that the companies in 3G Capital's portfolio are run independently, although they share a culture and principles: "So there is no synergies, no correlation, no interchange of people, no connection between the way the businesses are run on a day-to-day basis."

Before working at Burger King, Mr. Hees served as CEO of America Latina Logistica, Latin America's largest railroad and logistics company, where he started in 1998 as a logistics analyst. He has a degree in economics from the Pontificia Universidade Catolica of Rio de Janeiro and an MBA from the University of Warwick, England.

His job running a fast-food chain with restaurants in various foreign markets raised his profile. The changes made there were mostly cheered because there was so much frustration with how Burger King had been doing.

An investment group put together a presentation for investors to explain its decision to work with Burger King that included quotes from interviews it had done with a number of the chain's franchisees. One franchisee commented, "Bernardo is 'brilliant, very numbers-oriented.' 3G has moved 'extremely fast.' "

The job running Burger King also brought at least one high-profile stumble. Mr. Hees got numerous media mentions for a comment he made in 2011 while talking with an audience in Chicago about his time studying at the University of Warwick. "The food is terrible and the women are not very attractive," he was quoted as saying.

More recent headlines have been about how his pay spiked during the recent fiscal year, an issue Mr. Johnson at Heinz is likely familiar with. Based on recent regulatory filings, Mr. Johnson's departure from the Pittsburgh company could put him in line to receive $212.6 million in a combination of a golden parachute, vested stock awards and deferred compensation and pension benefits.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018. First Published April 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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