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Soup king nourished an ailing hometown

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in Profiles in Leadership

When Douglas R. Conant stepped in to run Campbell Soup Co. in 2001, the company was failing on practically every front. In just one year, the company had lost half its market value. Em­­ployee engagement had tanked. And its headquarters’ hometown had become one of the least desirable in the nation.

Conant knew that underneath it all Campbell had a solid foundation of assets: iconic products, career em­­ployees and a supportive community.

So he launched a corporate transformation that entailed making Campbell a place where employees would want to stay. He knew that high performance would hinge on high engagement.

One strategy for employee engagement was a focus on restoring the company’s hometown of 140 years—Camden, N.J.

It began with a hard look at where the community stood. Violent crime was five times the national average. The high school dropout rate hovered at more than 40%. Buildings stood abandoned. And remaining residents had limited access to healthful foods, resulting in high hunger and obesity rates.

Because Campbell is a food company, its sweet spot was food and nutrition. So leadership set a goal of cutting the Body Mass Index (BMI) of Camden’s 23,000 children in half over the next decade.

That meant bringing nutritionists to schools, having chefs work closely with families on healthier cooking at home, building neighborhood gardens, sponsoring fitness events in schools, and attracting food retailers into Camden’s food desert.

The effect on employees was noticeable.

“The more work employees do to help advance the interests of the community, the prouder they become,” says Conant. “They perceive Campbell’s sponsorship and support of the community as a feather in their cap. The good feeling among employees is palpable—and contagious.”

Conant says that winning in the community leads to winning in the workplace and in the marketplace. And the numbers bear out: In 2002, for every two engaged employees, one was actively disengaged, the worst stats for a Fortune 500 company at the time.

Later, according to Gallup’s updated research, 17 Campbell employees were engaged for every one employee disengaged. The benchmark for world-class engagement: a 12-to-1 ratio.

— Adapted from “The Idealistic Realistic: What Really Helped Elevate Campbell Soup Company,” Douglas R. Conant, Harvard Business Review blog.

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