Keith NunesKANSAS CITY — The connectedness of the global economy, the consumer’s shifting perception of health, e-commerce and data management are all issues of importance to the chief executive officers of food industry companies. But of greater concern are the structural changes such issues will create in how products are manufactured, marketed and delivered, and whether investments being made today will allow companies to successfully meet consumer demand in the future.
At the end of company presentations made during the Sanford C. Bernstein Strategic Directions conference, held in New York in late May, panel moderators asked the presenting chief executives the same question — “As you look five years into the future, what’s the single biggest disruptive force that threatens your business and why?”

The answers provide a glimpse at the strategic priorities of several companies that participate in different parts of the supply chain. For Dirk Van de Put, c.e.o. of Mondelez International, the greatest disruptive force is the consumer, and providing customers in different regions of the world targeted innovation that meets their needs.
“While we feel that the world is more connected than ever, the differences between consumer behaviors and what they really want are bigger than ever,” he said. “And they’re driven by online and the availability of any product at anytime (and) anywhere.
“So, for us to get that right and to adapt ourselves as a big food company to that — change our innovation, change our marketing, change the way we do branding, change how we move and operate as a company — that is the biggest thing we need to change.”
Soren W. Schroder, c.e.o. of Bunge Ltd., identified the consumer as well, but pointed to a slightly different challenge.
“I think it’s more of what we’ve already seen, more around real food,” he said. “It’s more around a lot more health consciousness globally, and it doesn’t have to be just in the wealthy parts of the world. I think it is a global phenomenon that will change how we do business …”
Mr. Schroder specifically referenced protein and the changes taking place in the market that will improve efficiencies in the production of both plant- and animal-based proteins.
“I think a lot will come from the protein chain, and it won’t be business as we know it today,” he said.
The leaders of McDonald’s Corp. and Domino’s Pizza, Inc. pointed to advances in technology as being the most disruptive marketplace forces. McDonald’s said it’s achieving a balance between a consumer’s physical experience with the company and managing its technological relationship with the fast-food chain.
J. Patrick Doyle, c.e.o. of Domino’s, said changes in technology may put the pizza-maker on the pathway to being “a 100% digital company.”
Underlying all the c.e.o. comments was a sense of uncertainty; that the investments made today may be obsolete in five years, because of advances in technology or changes in consumer preferences. Lawrence E. Kurzius, president and c.e.o. of McCormick & Co., alluded to this when he said being agile is the key to being prepared, because “the real disruptor is the one we don’t know about yet.”