CHICAGO (FNS) -- Sara Lee Corp. is looking to parlay its strong European market position in coffee and soap into a U.S. entry in those product categories.
In response to a question after the company's annual meeting, John H. Bryan, chairman and chief executive officer, said it is "altogether possible" that Sara Lee could enter the retail coffee market in the United States, "given how horrible retail coffee is here." Sara Lee coffee brands are market leaders in many European countries, and the company's Superior brand holds the top position in the U.S. food-service industry.
"It's not out of the question we would go into the U.S. retail coffee market, but we wouldn't do it foolishly," Bryan said at a post-meeting press conference, adding that coffee sales here are relatively stable. "No one is begging us to come in, but we wouldn't be scared of it."
Sara Lee has also thought about introducing its Sanex brand of soap, which the company claims is the market leader in every major European country, to the United States, Bryan said. The Sara Lee foods division is targeting individual servings with several new products, Steven McMillan, president and chief operating officer, told shareholders at the meeting.
Those products include Ball Park Singles -- hot dogs in individual, microwavable packaging -- and two new Sara Lee frozen cheesecake desserts: bite-size, chocolate-covered pieces and packages of two individual cheesecake slices.
Asked about home-meal replacement at the press conference, Bryan said an experiment last year with Sara Lee kiosks in supermarkets "was not successful," and the company is now approaching that area through its products in supermarket delis. Bryan told shareholders the company continues the "deverticalization" effort announced last fall. That revolves around moving out of manufacturing and raw materials production and devoting those resources to product design and development, directing the supply chain, and sales and marketing.
He indicated after the meeting that those redirected assets, plus stock repurchased by the company, will also likely be used for additional acquisitions in the United States and overseas. The Sara Lee meeting, the 25th Bryan has presided over, celebrated the company's strong brand names with an appearance by country music personality Jimmy Dean, whose name Sara Lee uses on sausages. Also, actor Gary Sinise expressed appreciation for the company's support of the arts, particularly Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Both Sara Lee and Steppenwolf were named recipients of the National Medal of the Arts the day before.
Some stockholders did criticize the re-election of Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan to the Sara Lee board. One charged Jordan has "stained the fair damsel Sara Lee," and another asked Jordan if he had ever suggested Sara Lee hire a particular person -- a Monica Lewinsky reference. Other shareholders booed those comments and apologized to Jordan.
Bryan told shareholders that in today's business climate, "I'm particularly pleased we are selling basic, repeat-purchase, branded merchandise. Sara Lee does have a relatively positive view of its prospects in 1999 and the years ahead." He added that the company has very limited exposure in developing countries and is, therefore, minimally impacted by the economic problems in Asia and South America.
Sara Lee announced a two-for-one stock split and an increase to $1 in the annual dividend at the annual meeting. Also, Judith A. Sprieser, senior vice president and chief financial officer, was named an executive vice president of the corporation and elected to the board.