Greg Peterson is a bit of a dark horse. In many ways the UK MD of Kellogg's is exactly as you would expect an American born in Utah to be - earnest, wholesome and somewhat reserved. But appearances can be deceiving.
During his first interview since he took up the reins in 2006, he displays a steely determination and surprisingly British sense of irony as he outlines the challenges ahead for the business as it steps up its campaign against the controversial Nutrient Profiling Model, which has stopped it from advertising to children.
The past two years have been among the most tumultuous for the cereal industry and it has been Peterson's job to steer Kellogg's through the choppy waters, not that he's afraid of a challenge.
After joining the breakfast cereals giant in 1991, he worked for seven years in the US before being moved to South Africa, where he was managing director until the end of 2000. After that he was posted to Asia for two years, before becoming CEO and president of the Canadian operation for nearly four and then moving to Australia prior to the UK.
His current role presents arguably the biggest challenges yet in his career. Though he doesn't say it explicitly, Peterson is clearly irritated by the simplistic attitudes of the health police.
"Childhood obesity and obesity in general have shot right to the top of the agenda," he admits. "But the issue has several sides and pulling one lever (blaming the food industry) isn't going to work. You have to tackle the problem from all angles. People are looking to be healthier but it isn't just about sugar or calories it's a combination of many things."
One of the biggest thorns in Peterson's side has been the Food Standards Agency-developed NPM, which bans 80% of cereals from being advertised to children. "We are deeply unhappy with the FSA's model, which is unfair to cereals on several levels because it doesn't take into account that we are a dehydrated category," he says. "We can't put cereal through as it is consumed with milk."
Last month's news that the NPM might be tweaked to allow a few cereals such as Bran Flakes through the net received a muted response from the company and Peterson is determined to keep lobbying. "Tinkering around the edge of the model will not have a beneficial effect on cereal products," he argues.
Kellogg's is a responsible business and is playing its part in the fight against obesity with campaigns such as its link up with the Amateur Swimming Association and its school Breakfast Clubs initiative, says Peterson. Some have suggested such initiatives amount to little more than cynical CSR posturing. Nothing could be further from the truth, insists Peterson.
"This isn't about Kellogg's the brand but about promoting a healthier lifestyle," he says as he highlights the company's endeavours to promote healthier choices. "We have a broad portfolio of brands, some with sugar and some without and that offers consumers a choice," he says. "We brought out a reduced-sugar version of Frosties a few years ago, for example. They aren't bought in the same proportion as the consumer research suggested they would be but they are still on shelf, they still sell and we are pleased with them." Of course, marketing and advertising also play their part. One of Peterson's more recent challenges has been adapting the company's advertising policy and brand strategies to meet increasingly inflexible regulations.
Not that this fazes Peterson. "We've not only moved all our advertising in line with regulations, we've gone a step or two further and the very nature of our advertising has changed. We've moved the advertising away from children's TV to times when parents will be watching. We also place a much greater emphasis on the interaction between mum and child in our advertising and our campaigns are designed to appeal to the whole family, not just children." He is at pains to quash speculation the company will axe icons such as Tony the Tiger or Coco the Monkey.
The company has also shifted its promotional strategy and no longer gives away toys in boxes, for example. "In 2003 we put 55 million toys into our cereal boxes," says Peterson. "Last year we put none and there won't be any this year either."
Instead Kellogg's has been giving away gadgets to promote exercise. Last year 750,000 pedometers were added to boxes and it is currently giving away 250,000 cyclometers, which measure speed and distance cycled.
Getting rid of toys has not had an adverse impact on sales, according to Peterson, who points out Coco-Pops still posted growth last year - up 3.6% to £42.2m [Nielsen MAT to w/e to 06 October 2007]. He says he is confident about the future. "I'm very bullish about the growth opportunities that exist. There's plenty going in our favour," he says. "Look at the shift to healthier foods. This is good for Kellogg's as we are a grain-based company and our products are high in fibre and low in fat. The ageing population is another trend that plays right into our hands, as older consumers tend to be more concerned about their diet and have more disposable income. The way we eat is also changing as we are starting to snack more. My job now is simply to make sure we capitalise on such opportunities."
NPD is a big part of Peterson's plans to ensure the business fulfils its full potential. As consumers make healthier choices, more brand-extensions are likely. For older consumers Peterson hints at a move into posh cereal, or what he calls the "natural premium area" to compete with start-ups such as Dorset Cereals. However it is the move to snacking that will be key to the company's future in the UK, believes Peterson. "In the US the business is 50% snack-based and we intend to replicate that here," he says.
To this end, Peterson last year created a snacking division, appointing a UK general manager for the arm, and launched the bagged Special K Mini Breaks range in July and the adult snacking range FruitaBü in October. At the beginning of this year he announced a 15-strong snack sales force dedicated to c-stores.
Peterson does not rule out further diversification into areas such as water, emulating its other markets - Special K20 Protein water, for example, was launched in the US two years ago.
"We will look at how that plays out over there and move it into other markets where we think it is sustainable."
For now, there is the plenty to keep this quiet, determined, Thai-speaking American occupied.nsnapshot
Name: Greg Peterson
Age: "deep 40s"
Education: Class of 85, University of Utah, followed by an MBA from Northwestern University, class of 87
Career to date: Joined Procter & Gamble Ohio in 1988 in soaps and detergents, followed by a move to Kellogg's in 1991
Family: Married with three sons (12, 15, 18) and a daughter of 21
What do you do in your spare time? I love to cycle and manage around 100 to 150 miles a week. In fact if I weren't doing this job I'd like to own a bike shop
Do you allow your kids Coco-Pops for breakfast? Yes! Absolutely