Martyn Wilks has been appointed to head Dairy Crest's foods division, which is responsible for top-selling brands such as Clover spreadable butter and Cathedral City cheese.

He will take up the post as executive MD of foods at the Esher, Surrey-based dairy group, on 7 January, replacing Peter Thornton.

Wilks has a strong background in food, most recently as president of the snack foods division of Masterfoods USA, where he was directly responsible for 5,000 staff across eight factories and the sales office. Before that he held senior positions at Mars and Masterfoods, including MD of Mars, France.

Dairy Crest chief executive Mark Allen said his new recuit's experience in fmcg was at the heart of his appointment. "Martyn has a proven track record at a very senior level in a major international food group," Allen said. "This will be invaluable as we develop our brand portfolio and build our market position in Europe."

Thornton will stay on until 31 March to hand the business unit over but leaves the board immediately. Dairy Crest said he was leaving by mutual consent. Thornton was instrumental in helping the company develop its branded offer, and oversaw the acquisition of St Ivel's UK spreads in 2002.

Analysts said Dairy Crest had brought Wilks in because of his brand management experience.

The foods division is the key growth driver at Dairy Crest, as fresh milk is a relatively stable product with low margins. Food division turnover rose 42% to £283m in the six months to 30 September, with operating profit on continuing operations up 15% to £31.8m.

The division was bolstered last year by the acquisition of the St Hubert spreads business in France. By contrast, the dairies business turned over £512m in the same period and generated profits of £13.5m.