The Player: Leslie Van de Walle of United Biscuits: Biscuits boss knows how cookie crumbles

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The Independent Online
PERSONAL DETAILS: A French national, born in Paris in 1956. He speaks fluent French, English and Spanish, lives in London and drives his wife's Jaguar. His hobbies include golf and travelling. In 1998, he was paid pounds 353,000 as chief executive of United Biscuits' McVitie's Group.

CHALLENGE: The food company whose brands include McVitie's Jaffa Cakes, Hula Hoops and San Marco frozen pizzas, has been a major stock market underperformer. United Biscuits faced constant speculation about a bid for the group. Action to improve the trading performance was taken by the previous chief executive Eric Nicoli, but has to be done.

Mr Van de Walle says the focus is now firmly fixed on growing the business rather than cutting costs. There are also challenges facing the industry as it tries to boost consumer and investor confid- ence. Mr Van de Walle believes the UK food sector is at a crossroads. He regrets the fact that "food is no more fun", noting consumer concerns about food quality and safety and the growing market for organic produce.

CORPORATE BACKGROUND: Leslie Van de Walle joined United Biscuits in 1994 as managing director of the European snacks business and was chief executive officer Continental Europe Region in 1995. In 1998 he was made chief executive of the McVitie's group and appointed to the board of United Biscuits Holdings. Mr Van de Walle had worked at Cadbury Schweppes in marketing, business development and European general management.

STRATEGY: Mr Van de Walle says his main goal is "to build the best biscuit business in Europe from a very strong UK base". He wants to double the size of the biscuit business to pounds 2bn in seven years and sees growth opportunities in Europe. "It is only a question of time before Europe becomes a single entity," he says.

United Biscuits already has a strong European platform following recent acquisitions, including Le BN, the second-largest biscuit brand in France. Mr Van de Walle plans investment in research and development and marketing, to feed growing consumer interest in healthy eating. Strong cash flow from good frozen food and chilled brands such as KP Nuts will provide the funds. There are no plans to dispose of non-biscuit businesses. "I do not believe in strategic purity. It is a balance," he says.

He also intends "to leverage our international network". United Biscuits operates in 22 countries. A pan-European supply chain is being established for economies of scale. The company is moving from private label production and putting more emphasis on growing its own brands. There is a greater focus on customers and anticipating their desires. "We need to learn a new way of doing business," says Mr Van de Walle.

MANAGEMENT STYLE: Mr Van de Walle describes himself as "demanding but realistic and hopefully fair", adding: "People can add a lot of value but they have to deliver. I am very impatient."

MOST ADMIRES IN BUSINESS: Antoine Ribaud, President of BSN, the French food company whose brands include Danone. Mr Ribaud was a glass manufacturer who decided 25 years ago to be one of the top European food producers. "He has great vision. I think he has done a great job," says Mr Van de Walle.

CITY VERDICT: The appointment of Mr Van de Walle is viewed positively by the investment community. Shares in United Biscuits have traded around 180p to 200p. Mark Lynch, food producer analyst at Warburg Dillon Reed, says: "The key to outperformance is top-line growth."