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Hershey Foods Corp. appoints a Kraft executive as its CEO

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Hershey Foods Corp., hoping to build momentum in its push to offer more than chocolate bars in the candy aisle, has named a Kraft Foods executive as its chief executive.

Richard H. Lenny, 49, was named CEO of the world's largest candymaker Monday after spending just three months as head of Kraft's Nabisco Biscuit and Snack business. He had been with Nabisco when it was acquired last year by Kraft Foods parent Philip Morris Cos.

Lenny said his departure from Nabisco stemmed from a desire to improve Hershey Foods' growth as it ventures further into the snack food business, not from any dissatisfaction with Nabisco's new ownership.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead this great American icon. The growth potential is huge," Lenny said in a telephone interview from New York. He will take over at Hershey Foods in April.

Kraft Foods, meanwhile, named Michael Polk, 40, to succeed Lenny. Polk had been group vice president for Kraft Foods International and president of the Asia Pacific region. In the new job, Polk will oversee operations that include brands like Oreo cookies, Life Savers candy and Planters nuts.

Hershey Foods announced in November it was launching a search for someone to replace chairman and CEO Kenneth L. Wolfe, but didn't say why. Wolfe said he will remain chairman during a transition period of as long as a year before retiring.

Wolfe said preparations for a CEO search began about four years ago, when the board asked him about his retirement plans. He indicated he would like to step down after turning 62 in February; as far as he knew, there were no other factors behind his departure.

"Sometimes people in my position are the last ones to find out if that's to the contrary," Wolfe said Monday.

Lenny is the third Nabisco executive to be chosen to lead a major consumer-products company. In January, Nabisco Foods Co. president Douglas R. Conant was named chief executive at Campbell Soup Co. His old boss, Nabisco CEO James M. Kilts, assumed the top job at Gillette Co. later that month.

Wall Street analysts said that given Hershey Foods' current financial strength, they expected Lenny would try to improve the company's bottom line without a major corporate shakeup.

"I don't think the first thing you'll see out of Hershey's research and development offices will be a chocolate-covered corn chip," said John McMillin, an analyst with Prudential Securities. "You will see a broadening of product, but it won't stray too far from home."

Wolfe came under fire in 1999 as Hershey Foods struggled with a new computerized distribution system and failed to fulfill all of its orders for holiday candy, including Milk Duds, Kit Kats and Twizzlers.

The new, $112 million distribution system was designed in part to help the company avoid Year 2000 computer problems. But glitches hampered delivery to retailers, resulting in disappointing sales and earnings.

"While we did struggle through 1999, to the best of my knowledge, the company is in pretty good shape," Wolfe said.