Positioning Danone to Be the First Big “Good” Food Company

Danone North America has undergone significant change in the past 18 months, but Mariano Lozano is laser-focused on the company’s commitment to sustainable food.

It’s not every day that you meet a CEO who has Nelson Mandela’s prison number tattooed on their arm. But Mariano Lozano, the 51-year-old CEO of multinational food company Danone North America, is not your typical CEO by any stretch of the imagination. The Argentinian native now at the helm of one of the top-15 food-and-beverage companies in the US has followed a unorthodox path to his chief-executive role.

There’s been a flurry of activity for the nearly century-old company in the past 18 months: In April 2017, Danone completed the acquisition of WhiteWave Foods, adding popular products to their portfolio that include Silk plant-based products; Horizon, the leading organic milk brand; and Earthbound Farm, a marketer of packaged organic produce. Danone North America also embraced the vision “One Planet, One Health,” illustrating the company’s commitment to sustainable food.

On the heels of the acquisition, the company became the largest Certified B Corporation in the world this spring — two years ahead of schedule — marking the company’s commitment to balancing shareholders’ financial interests with social and environmental considerations. (Companies that obtain Certified B Corporation status must adhere to a strict set of guidelines verifying a company’s performance, transparency, and accountability, measured by B Lab, a third-party nonprofit.)

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On a local level, the Westchester-based headquarters were relocated this past summer from Greenburgh to sleek offices in Downtown White Plains. The open-plan concept space was designed to “foster a more collaborative culture” among the approximately 350 employees, Lozano says. (Although he is CEO, Lozano actually has no corner office and jokes that the magazine may want to reconsider changing the column’s name for this edition.)

All this action is enough to make one’s head spin, but Lozano thrives on change. He has rituals that keep him grounded, though. For one, he eats the same breakfast each day: Activia (a Danone product, of course), wheat bread toast, and yerba mate, an herbal tea from Argentina prized for its digestive and cholesterol-lowering properties.

“I like the word ritual because it is exactly that,” notes Lozano during a recent conversation. Mate is served in a hollow gourd and imbibed communally through a metal straw called a bombilla. Lozano proudly displays a leather–encased gourd during our conversation, and it becomes immediately evident that this ritual parallels many of the goals that Danone is striving for or has already achieved. On a sustainability level, Danone offsets 100 percent of the electricity and water footprints of its manufacturing across the entirety of the US. 

“I’m not the high-skill, brilliant CEO type, like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. I consider myself a sales guy who worked his way up from the bottom.”

—Mariano Lozano, CEO, Danone North America

On a communal level, mate is shared, and Lozano believes that consumers today make choices that impact the world we live in every time they purchase Danone products. Lozano laments that “big food” these days is viewed similarly as Big Pharma, with consumer mistrust at an all-time high and the food industry’s reputation plagued by pesticides and GMOs. Lozano asks: “Why can’t we be known as the big good food company?” The philosophy behind the company’s vision, “One Planet, One Health,” is a shared purpose to change the way the world eats to benefit the health of people and the planet. A case in point is the introduction of Danone product FanMaxx, a long-shelf-life drinkable yogurt introduced in West Africa, a region that sometimes lacks proper refrigeration.

It’s also a region Lozano is intimately familiar with, after spending nearly four years working for Danone in Johannesburg, South Africa. When Lozano recalls his time with Danone in Africa, his eyes light up. “Africa holds a special place in my heart,” he says, as it was the birthplace of his first son (now 12). While working there, Lozano had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela three times, and he considers Mandela his “sole idol in life beyond my parents.” As a former salesperson, Lozano says he is never at a loss for words but claims that when “I met Mandela, I only cried. I didn’t know what to say. The world was an emptier place when he died. There are not too many leaders of that caliber.” Although Mandela passed away when Lozano was working in the US, Danone knew how important Mandela was to him and flew him back to South Africa to attend Mandela’s funeral.

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Like Mandela, colleagues praise Lozano’s leadership skills, which benefit the greater good. Nancy Dachille, director of facilities for Danone North America, has worked with Lozano for the past five years, in various capacities. “He is a true leader, who cares about changing our world,” she says. “He is passionate, committed, and driven by our company mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible.” He is the type of CEO who speaks from the heart rather than use a written speech and during company gatherings, he runs Q&A sessions where no topic is off limits. “He is comfortable with all,” notes Dachille.

Another colleague, Sergio Fuster, president of US Yogurt, describes Lozano as relatable and down-to-earth. “To me, leaders are defined by their behavior when things are not going well for a business,” Fuster says. “How do you connect with your team and support them when things get tougher? Mariano is always on your team and looking to help.” Fuster also appreciates that Lozano is a “pragmatic leader focused on what’s currently affecting the business. As you move up in leadership, the tendency is to get philosophical about things like long-term strategy, but he stays grounded in the here and now.”

After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Buenos Aires in 1991, Lozano worked initially in sales at a leading Argentinian beer company. “I’m not the high-skill, brilliant CEO type, like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. I consider myself a sales guy who worked his way up from the bottom,” Lozano says. His sales skills may be attributed to his father, who sold ads for Argentinian television. He credits his business acumen to his mother, who was always good with numbers.

Lozano was a sales director for Pillsbury before beginning his career at Danone in 2000 in Argentina. He considers it a pivotal moment as Argentina was going through a political and economic crisis then. “I was only 29. Looking back, perhaps I was a bit too young, but the guy who hired me took a chance on me,” Lozano says. In that job, he worked on La Serenísima, a dairy-products maker and one of the most recognizable brands in the country. The experience helped him hone his marketing skills.    

The CEO of Danone Worldwide, Emmanuel Faber, was impressed with Lozano’s work in Argentina and wanted to offer him a general manager position. But Lozano lacked an MBA, so they relocated Lozano to the firm’s smallest business unit in Slovakia in 2004. They told me: “If you mess it up, no one will notice, but if you don’t, you will keep advancing,” Lozano recalls. “We were in a town north of Bratislava, with a population of 1,000.” It was Lozano’s first experience abroad with his wife, and he even developed a vocabulary of 2,000 Cyrillic words.

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Luckily, the experience paid off, and by the time Lozano left, he was ready to take on a larger business unit; hence, the transfer to Africa. In his four years there, he doubled the business.

“He is a true leader who cares about changing our world. He is passionate, committed, and driven by our company mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible.”

—Nancy Dachille, Director of Facilities, Danone North America

Next up, Lozano moved to the general manager position of Danone Brazil. It’s also the country where his daughter (now 9) was born. Lozano once again doubled the business, to $1 billion in revenue in a period of five years. Before the company decided to transfer Lozano to the US, he never thought he would work in a First World country. “I was used to big, messy countries and emerging markets,” he says.

But working at Danone North America had its own unique set of challenges, and with the acquisition and corporate restructuring, Lozano’s position was eliminated three times before he was finally called in to interview for the CEO role. One key aspect of his time in the US office was leading the integration team and having to sell off Stonyfield, which was a Department of Justice mandate as a result of the WhiteWave acquisition. The nine-month process was grueling, but “a once in a lifetime opportunity” says Lozano.

“I never thought I would lead that kind of project. Together with a cross-functional and cross-company team of 100 people on both sides of the Atlantic, we went through the integration and the preparation of the new entity in North America plus the not-always-easy antitrust approval,” he explains. It was the largest deal Lozano has worked on and, he says, it taught him “a lot about the review and approval process of the Department of Justice and how to be more patient than I have ever been in my life.” Yet through it all, Lozano still managed to get six hours of sleep a night. “I track that daily, just like I weigh myself each day,” he jokes.

Combining WhiteWave and Danone’s US dairy business (known as The Dannon Company), $4 billion and $2 billion businesses, respectively, was a large undertaking, but Lozano insists he did not take on the integration project to become CEO. “I do not have a plan,” he notes. “Everything that I did here though was a piece of the puzzle.” From working in different countries and on several joint ventures to corporate restructuring, Lozano had the experience and skillset to bring these two companies together and move it in one direction.

Though heading up Danone North America keeps him traveling some 150 days per year, Lozano still makes time for family and sports. He coaches his son’s rugby team, in his hometown of Greenwich, and dubs himself an “Uberdaddy” on the weekends, shuttling his kids to various soccer matches. Lozano played rugby in his youth and broke 17 bones over the course of his playing career. “I played on a B team initially and was captain and learned that your effort matters more than being gifted. My effort combined with my attitude helped me get on the A team at the end of my rugby-playing days,” he explains.

Today, Lozano’s sport of choice is cycling. He participates in Gran Fondo races, which are the equivalent of a marathon for runners. In September, he competed in a race in Morristown, NJ, on a course known for its seemingly endless hills. But that challenge didn’t faze Lozano: He tackled it, head on, just as he does everything else.

Stacey Pfeffer is a freelance writer and editor based in Chappaqua.

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