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Company head brings military background


For a man steeped in military tradition who endured the grueling training to be an Army Ranger and paratrooper, heading a company called "Sweetheart" seems incongruent.

But for William F. McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer of a seemingly cutesy-named company, the chance to head the country's largest maker of disposable food service products is yet another challenge.

"I view it as a great challenge," he said. "And I'm very pleased to be here."

Mr. McLaughlin, 46, took command of Sweetheart Cup Co. last May, intent on leading a turnaround at a company that been severely wounded by a decade of turmoil.

"I think I bring to the organization the strategic and the fundamental business and change skills which the company needs," he said. "I think I bring a level of leadership that the company has not had for quite some time."

A 1972 graduate of West Point and a former Army major, Mr. McLaughlin was hired for his $400,000-a-year job after a national search by Beall & Co. Inc., an Atlanta-based executive recruitment firm. "We saw in Bill a very strong general manager skill set," said Charles T. Beall, managing partner of Beall & Co. "Someone who is a pro-active leader."

The son of a three-star general who managed food services for the Army, Mr. McLaughlin served in the Army from 1972 to 1982, earning a master's degree in business administration at Syracuse University during that time.

From 1973 to 1977 he trained as both a Ranger and a paratrooper and then joined the 82nd Airborne, making about 120 jumps.

Bailing out of airplanes was somewhat of a family tradition, with both his father and brother serving in the 82nd Airborne. In fact, Mr. McLaughlin made a jump from a military helicopter in 1973 with his father, who was then 56.

It would not be the last time he followed in his father's tracks.

In 1982, Mr. McLaughlin quit the military and became the controller of L. J. Minor Co., a Cleveland-based food flavoring company where his father was president. Mr. McLaughlin took over as president in 1986 shortly before the company was sold to Nestle.

He stayed on after the Nestle purchase, rising to executive vice president of Nestle Brands Foodservice Co. in Glendale, Calif.

"He did a great job for us. He's a very disciplined, buttoned-up guy," said Frederick T. Hull, president of the food service company. "He's a very deliberate guy. If I were to say there was any weakness, it would probably be more in the sales and marketing side. But he was picking that up with us," he said.

Mr. McLaughlin's gung-ho approach to making dramatic changes -- including suggesting that the food services headquarters be moved east -- did put him in conflict at times, Mr. Hull said.

"He was coming in from the smallest company in the entire group, by far," he said. "His little company was about $50 million in sales. And he was trying to change this $7 billion group of companies, imposing his beliefs. It was just too much."

While he disagrees with Mr. Hull about his marketing skills, Mr. McLaughlin agrees that Nestle was a bit too large and staid for his tastes.

"It can be very bureaucratic," he said. "There's no question about that. And if you come from a smaller, independent background, as I had, there's a certain degree of frustration in that."

The desire for more autonomy was one reason for Mr. McLaughlin accepting the job with Sweetheart. "We have this good support from our ownership and we have the ability to make decisions and move very quickly," Mr. McLaughlin said.

And from AIP's point of view, Mr. McLaughlin was just the man they were looking for.

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