A 29-year-old is the new CFO of the company behind Jell-O and Oscar Mayer weiners

Sep 13, 2017 | The Washington Post

Warren Buffett may be one of America's oldest CEOs. But a food giant created by a merger deal that was orchestrated between his company and a private-equity firm two years ago just named one of the youngest chief financial officers in the country.

On Friday, Kraft Heinz, the producer of veteran food brands like Velveeta cheese and Maxwell House coffee, named David Knopf, a 29-year-old vice president, as its new chief financial officer effective Oct. 1. Knopf, who was leading the Planters peanuts category for Kraft Heinz, has also been a partner with 3G Capital, the private-equity firm that has a reputation for aggressive cost-cutting and partnered with Berkshire Hathaway to create Kraft Heinz.

Executive recruiters said the unusual move -- the average age of a chief financial officer is 52 -- has less to do with any trend in CFOs getting younger than with the particular culture of the people and the firm involved. "To be selected as CFO of a company that's this large with a global footprint and a global brand means he’s got to be a star," said Charley Polachi, managing partner of an eponymously named executive search firm.

Moreover, said Peter Crist, chairman of the executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, the culture of 3G Capital, a Brazilian private-equity firm whose affiliates are big shareholders in Anheuser-Busch InBev, is known for promoting young executives. "The aberration you’re seeing here is the cultural aberration of this private specific equity firm," Crist said. "Rarely do we see someone with less than 10 years of experience being named a significant public company’s CFO."

Another company backed by 3G, Restaurant Brands International, formed from the merger of Burger King and Canadian coffee-and-donut chain Tim Hortons, is run by a 37-year-old chief executive who became CEO of Burger King at 32 and had a CFO on his team in his 20s.

Fortune Magazine, in a recent article about Kraft Heinz and 3G Capital, called 3G's management approach "meritocracy, broadly defined. Every employee must justify his existence every day. That's great news for the very best performers; they are promoted with speed that is unheard-of in lumbering old food companies."

That seems to have happened in Knopf's case. According to his LinkedIn profile, Knopf graduated from Princeton University in 2010, worked as an investment banking associate at Goldman Sachs, and then went into private equity, first at Onex and then at 3G Capital. He spent a year as vice president of finance at Kraft Heinz before moving into the position leading the Planters brand. He likely "had the benefit of familiarity" with the private-equity firm, said Polachi, and "familiarity many times can swing the day" on who's selected.

Kraft Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said in an email that Knopf was not available for interviews, but provided this statement about Knopf's selection: "Since joining Kraft Heinz, David has delivered extraordinary results. In the Kraft Heinz culture of meritocracy and ownership, we believe in challenging, recognizing and rewarding our top talent and providing unlimited opportunities for growth."

Knopf's appointment comes at a time when the CFO's job has been evolving, growing even more demanding and more expansive than ever, headhunters say. While their job has traditionally been to maximize shareholder value and be the spokesperson to the investor community, the CFOs have more strategic and now often fill the role a chief operating officer once held. Today, says Alyse Bodine, who leads the CFO practice in the Americas for Heidrick & Struggles, the job has become much more than just finance and accounting. "The CFO is absolutely becoming more critical -- a true business partner to the CEO," she said. "That's absolutely a trend."

Companies backed by private equity, in particular, are bringing in more finance executives with an analytic background, such as corporate finance, said Keith Giarman, managing partner at DHR International, rather than those who grew up in public accounting. "They know how to think like an investor," he said.

Knopf, of course, will have an opportunity to prove his prodigy status. Like many Big Food companies, Kraft Heinz -- which made a rebuffed bid for Unilever earlier this year in search of growth -- has seen lackluster sales as consumers increasingly pass up packaged foods for fresher alternatives.