CHICAGO ­­– Kraft Heinz chief executive officer Carlos Abrams-Rivera has only been in the top job since December 2023, but in his time with the company, he’s been pivoting toward more innovation, a more inclusive posture and an increased international focus.

Abrams-Rivera spoke to the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference on May 30 in New York.

Kraft Heinz is a stronger and much different company than it was four years ago, he said, crediting a strategy of innovation and organic growth focused on consumers of the company’s well-known ketchup, macaroni and cheese and hot dog brands.

“I think that we cannot be growing a company in a competitive environment like food if we don’t invest in the marketing and understanding our consumer better,” he said.

Kraft Heinz is reportedly exploring a sale of its Oscar Mayer brand in an effort to refocus its portfolio following the company’s first-quarter 2024 sales drop of 1.2%. While Abrams-Rivera didn’t directly address a sale, he said the brand would see new packaging by the end of the year and noted there is now a plant-based version and a recent stuffed hot dog product.

At the same time, he said the company is going to be clear about what is expected for its businesses to maintain a dynamic portfolio.

“We’re going to continue — just like we looked at our Kraft Cheese business, we're always going to look at opportunities,” he said. “But I will say we are very disciplined in how we think about those things.”

Abrams-Rivera described talking to the Kraft Heinz board about how the company didn’t have an innovation problem, although he added there was more to the issue.

“We had a good innovation problem, meaning we were throwing a lot of stuff out there, but the things are — would only be lasting for about six to nine months,” he said. “And it created a huge amount of inefficiency in a factory. It’s a huge amount of waste.”

Subsequently, Kraft Heinz has improved operations to focus on disruptive innovation “that is truly new to the world,” he noted.

Examples include intellectual property-driven innovations such as away-from-home, the Heinz Remix machine and the 360CRISP technology first used in grilled cheese sandwiches.

Parallel to the innovation piece is a focus on efficiency throughout the company’s manufacturing operations. Abrams-Rivera said Kraft Heinz has 38 different Agile@Scale pods, mostly in North America, and 19 of them have an embedded artificial intelligence solution.

The question now is how to deploy the solutions to enhance efficiency in company factories, in logistics and in the retail environment, he said.

One efficiency success story is the company’s Philadelphia cream cheese business, Abrams-Rivera said. It started with Kraft Heinz developers and engineers coming into a factory and working with a Microsoft developer and engineer to see how things were being run.

They found that sometimes the equipment would start breaking down and was only able to be fixed after the breakdown occurred. Sensors were put across the entire production line, and now they’re able to see what will actually be breaking down and can address it beforehand.

“Just on one line on one factory, it had been about $10 million in savings just on that,” he said. “That’s a model that now we’re taking to other parts of our company in order to continue to replicate.”

Abrams-Rivera also is focusing efforts on boosting sales in emerging markets, which currently comprise 10% of company sales. He sees an opportunity to continue to expand the portfolio geographically given its well-known brands.

“… (Heinz is) such an iconic brand that even in countries where we’re not present, there is a latent demand for our products,” he said.

Having Heinz bottles on restaurant tables in movies and television shows doesn’t hurt either, he noted.

Kraft Heinz is changing its corporate culture on Abrams-Rivera’s watch to drive additional transformation. There’s been a sense of ownership and ambition in the company, he said, and he wanted to take those elements and evolve them.

A previous sense of individual ownership shifted during the past four years to owning it together, Abrams-Rivera said. It implied an incentive for people to think long term about organic growth and focus on the company’s consumers, he added.

“… We’ve been around for 150 years, and now we have the team in place and the structure and the right priorities in order to be another 150 years also here in the company,” he said.