Campbell Soup Co. chief executive Denise Morrison has spent $2.4 billion since 2012 on companies she hopes will grow faster than Campbell's highly profitable canned soups.
In particular, industry experts say, Morrison's creation of Campbell Fresh - a new division led by Bolthouse Farms' refrigerated juices and salad dressing - is the right way to go, given consumer trends.
But Bolthouse's biggest business - carrots and related products - was a drag in the first quarter. And there is skepticism among analysts that Campbell can stick to one strategy for long to grow beyond its legacy soup business.
"The question is not whether Campbell's is on the right track; the question is whether the board will permit them to stay on that track," said John Stanton, a food-marketing professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
"There's evidence in the past that they've gotten cold feet," said Stanton, who has followed the Camden company since 1974, when he had his first consulting job there.
The company has had a stream of starts and stops. A push in the 1980s to diversify Campbell into fresher and healthier fare ended in the 1990s. Campbell's foray as a bread supplier to McDonald's lasted just five years. And its efforts to sell dry soups in Europe and establish a soup-maker in Russia were each abandoned.
Asked about this, Morrison said a company can have a long-term course, but it also has to adjust and can't get stuck. "Moving with the times is an important idea for strategy today," she said.
In the United States, Campbell and other 20th-century titans of the packaged-food industry - General Mills, Kellogg, and Kraft - have struggled to grow in a fragmented market that rewards convenience and the appearance of healthfulness.
In the last year, a 22 percent gain in the value of Campbell's shares, spurred largely by cost cutting, has outpaced the 13 percent increase in an index of packaged-food stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. But over five years, Campbell's shares have lagged.
The problem for the 146-year-old Campbell is that anything it does outside of canned soup - sold in the center aisles of the supermarket - leads to a step down in profitability.
Given enough time, experts said, that could threaten the millions in annual dividends the company pays to shareholders who are descendants of John T. Dorrance, who invented condensed soup in 1897.
The brother-and-sister team of Bennett Dorrance and Mary Alice Dorrance Malone owns 32 percent of the stock, according to the latest proxy statement.
The pair collect $124 million in annual dividends based on the current annual dividend of $1.248 per share, which is in line with what other packaged-food companies pay relative to their earnings.
Both have been on the board for at least 25 years. Archbold D. van Beuren, a former executive with the company who is from another branch of the Dorrance family, is a third director.
Those family board members, along with others who don't have to report their holdings, control at least 40 percent of the company's shares.
"Because of the family, you definitely have dividend- focused investors, so you have to protect your margins. You can't spend too much on growth initiatives," said Mitchell B. Pinheiro, a food analyst with Wunderlich Securities.
"Buying good-quality companies, that is less risky" than building new businesses from scratch because the former usually have revenue and profits, Pinheiro said.
That's what Campbell got in 2012 when it paid $1.55 billion in cash for Bolthouse Farms, which had $689 million in revenue that year. That became the cornerstone of Campbell's "packaged fresh" operations.
This is not the first time Campbell has focused on fresh.
R. Gordon McGovern, CEO from 1980 to 1989, diversified into healthier foods, even selling salads in supermarket refrigerator cases under the Campbell Fresh Chef brand.
Profits tanked, and during the subsequent tenure of David W. Johnson, Campbell jettisoned many of those businesses and doubled the company's operating profit margin to more than 20 percent.
The Johnson tenure also included acquisitions, such as the $1.1 billion purchase in 1994 of Pace Foods Ltd., which Johnson called a "brand jewel" that "would provide Campbell with a turbocharged new business category."
Pace had $220 million in revenue the year before Campbell bought it, and sales have only been "consistent" since then, the company said.
Right after Douglas R. Conant became chief executive in early 2001, Campbell paid nearly $1 billion to buy Unilever's dry-soups and sauces business in Europe, because overseas dry-soup sales were growing three times faster than wet soup.
Five years later, Campbell sold some of those Unilever businesses, and in 2013 it sold the remainder of its soups and sauces businesses in Europe.
Under Conant, Campbell's big idea - aside from valiant efforts to reinvigorate sales of condensed soup and to boost soup consumption outside the kitchen - was to build from scratch a store-bought soup business in Russia and China, much as Dorrance had done a century earlier in the United States.
But just four years later, in 2011, Morrison decided to pull out of Russia while continuing to stick with soup in Hong Kong and Taiwan. "We had a good product, a good team, a good distributor, but our business was not growing" in Russia, she said.
"Russia sounded great to me," said Pinheiro, the food-industry analyst, acknowledging there could be many reasons it didn't work out. He does not cover Campbell now but did so for many years starting in 1990.
"This company has yet to prove that it can stick with any one strategy for long," Pinheiro said.
He and Stanton, the St. Joe's professor, both said Campbell and other packaged-food manufacturers have no real alternative than to take a fresher approach to food to generate faster growth.
The downside is that the faster-growth Campbell Fresh businesses are "woefully lower margin" than the declining soup business, which could lead to years of profitability declines, wrote Alexia Howard, who follows Campbell for the investment firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., in a recent note to investors.
Morrison said the Bolthouse products she wants to expand - premium juices and refrigerated salad dressings - have profit margins comparable to the whole company's.
"Those are the businesses that I'm really interested in growing," she said.
Howard still wonders whether even more radical changes will be needed to deal with volume declines in soup.
"Time will tell whether the family finally caves in and decides to merge with another player and cash out while the outlook is still mixed," Howard said.