Hershey's CEO West jumps to top job at Del Monte

By MARC LEVY | May 18, 2011 | 12:13 PM EDT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — After leading The Hershey Co. to three years of strong performances, CEO David West is leaving to take the top job at the smaller Del Monte Foods Co., a move that sent the candy maker's shares plummeting Wednesday.

Del Monte Foods, the San Francisco-based food processor, said that West will become its CEO on Aug. 15 and will join the company's board in June. Del Monte was bought by private equity firms for $4 billion, a deal that closed in March.

Hershey chief operating officer John Bilbrey was named interim president and CEO Wednesday. In midday trading, Hershey's share price slipped $1.80, or more than 3 percent, to 55.28.

Soft-spoken and 47, West was promoted to Hershey's top job in 2007 after two years of skidding sales at the Hershey, Pa.-based company. Under West, Hershey's sales grew from $5.13 billion in 2008 to $5.67 billion in 2010, as he pumped huge sums into advertising and shifted the company's focus back to its core products, such as Hershey's Kisses and Reese's, and away from seasonal spinoffs.

"After 10 years with the company, it's time to take on the next challenge," West said in a statement released by Hershey.

Through the recession, Hershey reported rising profits in 11 out of 12 quarters. Analysts credited West with controlling costs as consumers traded down from expensive, gourmet chocolate to Hershey's cheaper mainstream products.

In the meantime, pressure grew on Hershey to compete for market share as two of its competitors, Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., grew through acquisitions.

At Del Monte, West will replace interim-CEO Neil Harrison. It reported sales of $3.74 billion in 2010. Del Monte's brands include Contadina and College Inn foods, as well as Kibbles 'n Bits, Meow Mix and Milk-Bone pet foods.

Bilbrey, who became COO in November, has been with Hershey since 2003, first as president of Hershey International. Before joining Hershey, he worked at Mission Foods, Group Danone's North American water business and Procter & Gamble.