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BOSTON - Robert Hawthorne unexpectedly resigned as chief executive of Ocean Spray on Wednesday after three years spent struggling to get better prices for the growers who own the cooperative and to compete with beverage giants Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes, the Associated Press reports.
Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. spokesman Chris Phillips said the decision was Hawthorne's, but acknowledged the cooperative's board felt it was time for a change.
"It's a matter of not enough. In terms of what the growers need, we need to do more," Phillips said. "Yes, we've made financial gains in the marketplace, but it's obvious we need to accelerate returns to growers."
Board member Barbara Thomas, a former president of Warner Lambert's consumer healthcare division, will serve as interim CEO until a replacement is named.
Hawthorne's unusual job description required him not only to try to sell Ocean Spray juice products, but to get the highest possible returns for his suppliers, the 804 cranberry growers and 126 grapefruit growers who own the cooperative. Most of the cranberry growers are in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin, with some in the Pacific Northwest.
Hawthorne tried to boost falling cranberry prices for growers by increasing demand, bringing Ocean Spray's signature cranberry juice into new markets and debuting a new white cranberry juice. Ocean Spray said earnings under Hawthorne rose from $59 million in fiscal 2000 to $158 million in fiscal 2002.
Still, a vocal minority has pushed Ocean Spray to sell to a larger company like Coca-Cola Co. or PepsiCo Inc., which have been snapping up juice brands and would have far more marketing muscle to support the brand. Ocean Spray suffered a setback early in Hawthorne's tenure when it lost a bottling and distribution agreement with Pepsi.
"The board is more strongly convinced than ever that remaining a cooperative is exactly the right strategy," Phillips said.