Kraft chief executive Irene Rosenfeld has hailed Cadbury's Bournville factory as the “heart and soul” of the global giant’s chocolate empire – with a “critical role” to play in the growth of the group.
In her first ever visit to the Birmingham chocolate factory, the boardroom boss voted the world’s second most powerful woman said she was “inspired” by Bournville.
She praised the passion and creativity of workers – and forecast a prosperous future for the Birmingham plant under the new Kraft regime, with full integration of the two operations completed as early as the end of next year.
But she refused to go beyond Kraft’s current two-year guarantee on manufacturing jobs and publicly apologised for the US giant’s about-turn on the closure of its Somerdale factory near Bristol.
Ms Rosenfeld, who reportedly earned £17.2 million last year as the US group swooped for Cadbury, said: “I had an inspiring day here yesterday. This is the heart and soul of Cadbury in Britain, and it will be the heart and soul of our global chocolate business.
“It is a really important location for us and I have had a terrific opportunity to meet the employees.
“One of the most exciting things for me is that there is so much passion and creativity here at Bournville. We have a very bright future.”
But she recognised Bournville workers’ uncertainties following the £11.7 billion takeover – and rejected previous demands by Unite the union for five-year guarantees on manufacturing jobs.
“I think there is still some uncertainty among the workforce which I think is understandable. I think the workers are very proud of what they have achieved, and now they are excited by the prospects of the combined companies.”
She apologised to workers at Somerdale following Kraft’s back-tracking on a previous announcement that the plant could stay open.
“My regret is that it created some uncertainty in the minds of our employees," she said. "I wish that it had not happened but as we look forward now, I am quite confident about our prospects for the future.”
Ms Rosenfeld, who is in charge of 140,000 workers across Kraft, said more manufacturing jobs and extra products were “conceivably” in the pipeline at Bournville, with further potential spin-offs for the chocolate manufacturer’s entire supply chain.
“The acquisition is all about growth – the possibilities are very exciting. I am reluctant to divulge more – we have terrific technologies.
“I am very happy with the range of products but there are some challenging macro-economic conditions. Our businesses have fared remarkably well.
“Bournville is the heart and soul and we have every confidence that it will continue to play a critical role in our success.
“The most important thing was to announce the head of the organisation – we have announced Nick Bunker and he has selected his leadership team.
“We are phasing out our chocolate centre in Munich and a number of employees will be moving to Bournville. I think that by the end of 2011 we will be fully integrated.
“Our end in mind is to deliver sales growth. I am particularly pleased that a third of our top 400 managers worldwide come from Cadbury.”
Ms Rosenfeld admitted she had not been fully aware of the power of the Cadbury brand until her arrival in Birmingham.
“I do not think that I could have fully appreciated what an icon Cadbury is to the British public. I did a brief whistlestop tour of Cadbury World and it gives you a sense of the heritage. It is a proud family history.”
She said she was proud to be named the second most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, losing out on top spot only to Michelle Obama. “I am honoured – it is a very formidable list but my focus is on growing our business.”
She admitted she was a fan of Cadbury creme eggs, but revealed Curly Wurlies were also a personal favourite.
And she said she would be back at Bournville, probably within a year. “I will be back, although it is a fairly sizeable tour I have got to make around the world.”
* Unite national officer Jennie Formby welcomed Irene Rosenfeld’s glowing praise for Bournville – but called for more action on job guarantees.
Ms Formby, one of the most vocal union opponents of the Kraft takeover deal, said: “We welcome the very positive comments that Irene Rosenfeld has made about Bournville today.
“But we would prefer to see a lot more substance on future jobs and conditions, not just at Bournville, but also at other UK and Ireland sites.
“There is going to be tremendous pressures on every site to cut costs and pressure on the company to find ways to pay off the debt on what is a very highly leveraged company.
“We will maintain a very watchful eye on Kraft, together with our sister trade unions in Europe and elsewhere in the world, to make sure that our members do not pay the price in the future for the cost of the buyout.
“If you look back at Kraft, the way that the company has managed costs over the last ten years has been to cut jobs, outsource production and close sites.
“We are extremely pleased at these positive statements about Bournville, although we would ask why the company is not prepared to give longer guarantees of more than two years on jobs.”
In August, Cadbury workers accepted a 3.7 per cent pay rise following an acrimonious five-month battle.
Thousands of workers have been asked to increase their pension contributions to help reduce an estimated £200 million deficit in the UK fund.