NORMAN Soutar, managing director of iconic family-owned Scottish food firm Baxters Food Group, has left the company and it is now back under day-to-day control of executive chairman, Audrey Baxter.
The Scotsman understands that Soutar, 46, left the company in July without colleagues being made aware of his departure or the reasons behind it. It is believed many of its staff are still unaware he has left.
A spokesman for the company yesterday confirmed that Soutar had left, but refused to comment on the reason. He said that Baxter had resumed the managing director's role.
Sources close to Baxters suggested, however, that the move could be the result of a disagreement on how he has been running the firm.
"I can confirm that Norman Soutar has left Baxters and his role as managing director has been assumed by the chairman. The company is not at present engaged in a search to find a replacement," the spokesman said.
Soutar, a decorated ex-army officer, who fought in Bosnia, had a successful career in the food industry before joining Baxters as food service director in December 2000, and subsequently served as director of corporate strategy. His performance encouraged Baxter to promote him to group managing director in June 2004, with responsibility for day-to-day management of the business in the UK and Europe. At the time he called the appointment "the dream post for any Scot working in the food industry".
The 1,000-employee company, founded in 1868 and which does around 65 per cent of its business in premium soups and broths, has set itself the target of becoming a 300 million turnover company by 2019. Earlier this year it announced a 16 per cent increase in turnover to 95.6m, with pre-tax profits up 14 per cent to 7.7m.
Baxters, which is based at Fochabers on the River Spey, has seen its share of UK branded products increase to 17.5 per cent, second only to US giant Heinz, and according to Soutar, his aim was to have taken that up to the low 20s, without the need for acquisitions.
News of the shock departure of the man charged with spearheading Baxters' strategy of attracting so many new customers while not being "dragged into the mid-market" in terms of quality has dismayed the charismatic Soutar's industry admirers.
One food industry source said: "We don't know the full story, but the fact that there has been absolutely no explanation for his departure suggests it was far from amicable.
"Norman is a tough, no-nonsense guy, who tells it straight, but it is in character for the company not to volunteer this information."
One Morayshire businessman, who has had long dealings with the firm, said: "There is a golden rule at Baxters, if you become more popular or better known than a Baxter then it's rectum ex fenestra.
"You can understand why, as its their name on the product, they are very proud of it, and at the end of the day they will not have any Joe Bloggs telling them what to do with it."
Neither Soutar nor Audrey Baxter were available for comment yesterday.