Chairman and chief executive officer, Mattel, Incorporated
Born: August 14, 1954, in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Education: University of Arizona, BS, 1976; Northwestern University, MBA, 1977.
Family: Married Kathie (maiden name unknown); children: four.
Career: Kraft Foods, 1977–1987, held several marketing positions (specific job titles unknown); 1987–1989, vice president for strategy and development, grocery products division; 1989–1990, vice president for marketing, refrigerated products; 1990–1993, vice president and general manager, cheese division; Oscar Mayer Foods Corporation, 1993–1996, president; Kraft Foods, 1996–1997, group vice president; 1997–2000, president and chief executive officer; Mattel, Incorporated, 2000–, chairman and chief executive officer.
Awards: Listed among the Top 25 Managers of the Year, BusinessWeek , 2001; Executive of the Year, University of Arizona, 2001; Lifetime Achievement Award, Eller College of the University of Arizona, 2002.
Address: Mattel, Incorporated, 333 Continental Boulevard, El Segundo, California 90245; http://www.mattel.com.
■ Robert Eckert rose from lower management positions to attain a series of leadership positions at Kraft Foods during the late 1980s and 1990s. After revitalizing the cheese division at Kraft as well as the company's Oscar Mayer unit, Eckert was appointed group vice president in 1996. He became Kraft's president and chief executive officer in 1997. His success continued when he moved to Mattel in 2000 to become its chairman and chief executive officer. He experienced significant success at Mattel during his first three years with the company through a low-key but assertive leadership style.
Eckert was a modest child, which largely shaped his leadership style in the years to come. He grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois as the son of a dentist and did little to stand out in his early years. His personality during his high school years was described as "low wattage," according to an article in Forbes . Eckert agreed. "[Y]ou never would have predicted that I'd be a CEO someday," he said (November 18, 2002).
Eckert left his home state of Illinois to attend the University of Arizona. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1976 and returned to Illinois, where he enrolled in the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. He received his MBA in marketing and finance in 1977.
Eckert began his career at Kraft Foods immediately after receiving his MBA. For the first 10 years of his career, he held a variety of marketing positions within the company. In 1987 he was promoted to vice president of strategy and development within Kraft's grocery products division. Phillip Morris Companies acquired Kraft during the following year, though it did not affect Eckert's assent into top management. In 1989 he was moved to the position of vice president for marketing for refrigerated products. In the following year he became the vice president and general manager of the company's cheese division.
Eckert was credited with turning around Kraft's cheese division by reducing product prices. His success with the division led to a new appointment as president of Oscar Mayer Foods, another company owned by Philip Morris. At Oscar Mayer, Eckert introduced ambitious plans for pricing and successfully introduced new product lines. During his tenure as president of the unit, Oscar Mayer introduced a line of fat-free meals as well as the popular Lunchables® prepackaged food combinations. These items combined to bring in an estimated $400 million in sales during Eckert's time as president.
Eckert's achievements in the cheese division and at Oscar Mayer propelled him to the second-highest executive position at Kraft in 1996. He retained responsibility for Oscar Mayer as group vice president but also took charge of the company's foodservice group as well as five operational staff groups.
During the following year, Kraft's president and chief executive officer, Robert Morrison, resigned to take over as head of the Quaker Oats Company. After Morrison's departure, Eckert was named as Kraft's new president and CEO in October 1997. "He is representative of the depth and talent we have in the company and is well-prepared to provide the seamless leadership that has been a cornerstone of Kraft's success," said William Webb, the chief operating officer of the Philip Morris Companies ( Chicago Sun-Times , October 24, 1997). Under Eckert's guidance, Kraft continued to grow. The company launched aggressive marketing campaigns while sales continued to increase. By 1999 the company had 32 product brands that each earned more than a hundred million dollars in annual revenue, and the company's total revenue reached an estimated $17.5 billion.
Kraft continued to make gains through 2000. After 23 years with the company, Eckert remained loyal to it even though his leadership abilities had made him an attractive prospect for recruiters of top executives. Mattel Incorporated targeted Eckert in its search for a new leader at the turn of the new millennium. In May 2000, Eckert resigned from Kraft to become the new chairman and chief executive officer at Mattel. He replaced Jill Barad, who had had a difficult three-year tenure at Mattel. Stock prices had fallen from a high of $46 per share in 1998 to approximately $10 around the time that Eckert joined the company.
Eckert had to quickly resolve what were perceived as Barad's mistakes. One of the major thorns in Mattel's side was the $3.5 billion that Barad had spent in the late 1990s to acquire the Learning Company, a software producer. By the time that Eckert took charge, the Learning Company was costing Mattel an estimated $1 million per day. At Mattel's annual meeting in June 2000, Eckert faced a group of disgruntled shareholders who grilled him with questions about the company's future. Eckert remained optimistic, displaying a positive attitude despite the shareholders' agitated behavior.
Eckert's leadership style was described on one occasion by the Chicago Tribune as "the picture of Midwestern sobriety," especially when compared with the flamboyant behaviors of other chief executives (January 28, 2001). During Eckert's first year as the head of Mattel, he sold the Learning Company, terminated an expensive licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company, and cut jobs and other expenses. His management of Mattel earned him recognition as one of the "Top 25 Managers of the Year" by BusinessWeek in 2002.
Mattel continued to benefit from Eckert's sound leadership, as its net income in 2003 rose to $487 million from $362 million in 1999. Mattel's stock during Eckert's first two years with the company nearly doubled in price. Mattel suffered some setbacks in the latter part of 2003, when the toy industry as a whole endured a period of weak sales. Under Eckert's guidance, however, Mattel responded in 2004 by focusing attention on its line of Barbie dolls as well as its electronic learning unit.
Eckert was a member of several company boards and civic organizations. He served on the board of McDonald's Corporation, the Advisory Board of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and the Board of Visitors of the Anderson School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles.
See also entries on Kraft Foods Inc., Mattel, Inc., The Learning Company, Inc., Oscar Mayer Foods Corp., and Philip Morris Companies Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
Lublin, Joann S., and Lisa Bannon, "Mattel Taps Kraft Chief Robert Eckert to Succeed Jill Barad as CEO," Wall Street Journal , May 17, 2000.
Pauly, Heather, "Kraft Promotes Veteran to Fill Vacant Top Spot," Chicago Sun-Times , October 24, 1997.
Pollack, Judann, "Eckert's Enterprise Crafts No. 2 Slot at Kraft," Advertising Age , August 12, 1996.
Sachdev, Ameet, "Recipe for CEO Success Includes a Dash of Kraft," Chicago Tribune , January 28, 2001.
Sellers, Patricia, "The New Breed," Fortune , November 18, 2002, pp. 66–70.
Tippit, Sarah, "Toymaker's New Chief Doesn't Break Under Shareholders' Assault," Chicago Tribune , June 8, 2000.
—Matthew C. Cordon