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Daniel Scrivner

Who is William Stiritz? Lessons on Maximizing Returns from the CEO who Built Ralston Purina and Post Holdings

This is part of my profiles on history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. Check out the profiles of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Bernard Arnault, Steve Jobs, Rick Rubin, or browse them all. You can also browse my collection of the greatest speeches, interviews, and letters of all-time.

William (Bill) P. Stiritz who served for more than 35 years in executive positions with Ralston Purina, including as Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer from 1981–1997. He served as Chairman of Energizer and Ralcorp (Ralston Purina) and CEO Agribrands and Post Holdings. He has also served on numerous company boards. Over a 40-year period, Mr. Stiritz produced a 20% return for shareholders. It’s an extraordinary record. Stiritz and his wife, Susan, have created two distinguished professorships at Washington University in St. Louis, where Susan is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Brown School. This profile contains a collection of my favorite William (Bill) P. Stiritz quotes, ideas, frameworks, books, and articles. This page is an attempt to collect all of William (Bill) P. Stiritz's best ideas, strategies, and wisdom in one place.

On this page:

10 Lessons from William Stiritz’s Approach to Rebuilding Ralston Purina

  • Reorganized the company around high margin and low capital requirement businesses.
  • Believed that businesses with predictable cash flows should employ debt to enhance shareholder returns. He maintained a debt-to-cash flow ratio 50% higher than his competitors and the industry.
  • Divested all other businesses that didn’t meet his criteria (hurdle rate) for profitability and returns.
  • Repurchased shares opportunistically, ultimately buying back 60% of Ralston’s shares. Used buyback returns as the internal hurdle rate for capital investment decisions—especially acquisitions. He viewed repurchases as the highest-probability investments he could make.
  • Preferred to acquire companies that had been mismanaged or under-managed—especially neglected divisions within giant conglomerates.
  • Believed that “Leadership is analysis.” He prized independent thinking and analytical ability in leaders.
  • Disdained book value as a metric. Focused on EBITDA and Internal Rate of Return (IRR) as the best way to understand economic reality.
  • Disdained the false precision of detailed financial models when making acquisitions. He preferred to focus on a handful of key variables including market growth, competition, potential operating improvements, and cash generation. He once said, “I really only cared about the key assumptions going into the model. I wanted to know about the underlying trends in the market: its growth and competitive dynamics.”
  • Disdained outside advisers, especially investment bankers, and once described them as “parasitic.” He was surgical with his use of advisers and made of using different ones for each transaction so that no one felt secure about his business.
  • Embraced spin-offs as “the ultimate decentralization,” providing managers and shareholders with an attractive combination of transparency and autonomy. He also liked that it allowed managers to be compensated more directly for their operating results.

The story of how William Stiritz built Ralston Purina into the largest and most profitable packaged food company.

For most of the last 50 years, the large packaged goods companies, including household names such as Campbell Soup, Heinz, and Kellogg, were considered the bluest of blue-chip stocks for their attractive combination of predictable growth, recession resistance, and reliable dividends. These companies had long been paragons of financial conservatism, using little leverage, reliably paying dividends, and rarely repurchasing shares. Most of them had followed fashion and actively diversified during the 1960s and 1970s in the quixotic pursuit of synergy, and many had ended up in restaurant and agricultural businesses in search of the elusive benefits of "vertical integration."

Ralston Purina was fairly typical of this group. In the early 1980s, Ralston was a Fortune 100 company with a long history in agricultural feed products. During the 1970s under CEO Hal Dean, the company had followed the same path as its peers, taking the enormous cash flow provided by its traditional feed businesses and engaging in a diversification program that left it with a melange of operating divisions, ranging from mushroom and soybean farms to the Jack in the Box chain of fast-food restaurants, the St. Louis Blues hockey team, and the Keystone ski resort in Colorado. When Dean announced his retirement in 1980, the company's stock price had not moved in a decade.

After Dean's announcement, Ralston's board conducted a thorough search for his replacement, involving a wide slate of internal and external candidates. As the search unfolded, a number of top national candidates emerged (including Tom Wyman, later CEO of CBS). Late in the process, a lesser-known candidate—a longtime company man who was not even the lead internal candidate—improved his chances dramatically when he submitted an unsolicited memo to the board outlining in detail his strategy for the company. After reading it, influential director Mary Wells Lawrence (founder of the Wells, Rich, Greene advertising agency) telegrammed back, "bullseye." Within days that candidate, William Stiritz, had the job.

How William Stiritz became the CEO of Ralston Purina.

William Stiritz was an insider, having spent seventeen years at Ralston before becoming CEO at the age of 47. This seemingly conventional background, however, masked a fiercely independent cast of mind that made him a highly effective, if unlikely, change agent. When Stiritz assumed the CEO role, it would have been impossible to predict the radical transformation he would effect at Ralston and the broader influence it would have on his peers in the food and packaged goods industries.

Stiritz had an unusual educational background for a CEO. He had an interrupted undergraduate experience, attending the University of Arkansas for only a year before leaving for a 4-year stint in the navy when his funds ran out. During his years in the navy, he honed the poker skills that would eventually pay for his college tuition. After the navy, he returned to college, completing his degree at Northwestern, where he majored in business studies. He never earned an MBA. Repeatedly labeled "cerebral" by his colleagues and Wall Street analysts, he did, however, receive a master's degree in European history from Saint Louis University in his mid-thirties.

After Northwestern, he had worked at the Pillsbury Company, starting as a field rep placing cereal on store shelves in northern Michigan (one of his largest accounts was an Indian reservation). Stiritz believes this grassroots experience was essential in helping him understand the nuts and bolts of distribution channels. He was subsequently promoted to product manager, a position that gave him broader exposure to consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketing. Wanting to understand media and advertising better, he left after two years for the Gardner Advertising agency in St. Louis. At Gardner, he showed an early interest in quantitative approaches to marketing and was a pioneering user of the nascent Nielsen ratings service, which helped give him a detailed understanding of the relationship between market share and promotional spending.

Stiritz joined Ralston Purina in 1964 at age thirty and was assigned to the grocery products division (pet food and cereals), long considered the "redheaded stepchild" within Ralston's large portfolio of businesses. He worked there for several years in positions of increasing responsibility, becoming general manager of the division in 1971. During his tenure, the business grew dramatically, with operating profits increasing fiftyfold through a relentless program of new product introductions and line extensions.

Stiritz personally oversaw the introduction of Purina Puppy and Cat Chow, two of the most successful launches in the history of the pet food industry. For a marketer, Stiritz was highly analytical, with a natural facility for numbers and a skeptical, almost prickly temperament. These traits had helped him at the poker table and would serve him well as CEO.

How William Stiritz rebuilt Ralston Purina as CEO.

On assuming the CEO role in 1981, Stiritz wasted little time in aggressively restructuring the company. He fully appreciated the exceptionally attractive economics of the company's portfolio of consumer brands and promptly reorganized the company around these businesses, which he believed offered an attractive combination of high margins and low capital requirements. He immediately began to remove the underpinnings of his predecessor's strategy, and his first moves involved actively divesting businesses that did not meet his criteria for profitability and returns.

In his early years at the helm, Stiritz sold the Jack in the Box chain of fast-food restaurants, the mushroom farms, and the St. Louis Blues hockey franchise. The sale of the Blues in particular put Wall Street and the local business community on alert that the new CEO would be taking a radically different approach to managing Ralston.

Stiritz proceeded to sell other noncore businesses, including the company's soybean operations and miscellaneous restaurant and food service operations, leaving Ralston as a pure branded products company. In this regard, he was not unlike Warren Buffett in the early days at Berkshire Hathaway, extracting capital from the low-return textile business to deploy in much higher-return insurance and media businesses.

Starting in the early 1980s, Stiritz overcame initial board resistance and initiated an aggressive stock repurchase program. He was alone among the major branded products companies in pursuing buybacks, which he believed could generate compelling returns, and they would remain a central tenet of his capital allocation plan for the remainder of his tenure.

Starting in the mid-1980s, after the initial round of divestitures, Stiritz made two large acquisitions totaling a combined 30% of Ralston's enterprise value, both of them largely financed with debt. The first added Continental Baking, the maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, to Ralston's stable of brands. Stiritz bought Continental from the diversified conglomerate ITT, where it had languished as the company's lone packaged goods business. Under Ralston's management, distribution was expanded, redundant costs were eliminated, new products were introduced, and cash flow grew significantly, creating significant value for shareholders.

Next, in 1986, Stiritz made his largest purchase ever, acquiring the Energizer Battery division from Union Carbide for $1.5 Billion, equal to 20% of Ralston's enterprise value. Union Carbide was struggling in the wake of the Bhopal disaster, and its battery business, despite a strong brand name, had long been a neglected, noncore operation. Like ITT, Union Carbide was a motivated seller lacking in consumer products marketing expertise. Stiritz prevailed in an auction, paying an admittedly full price for an asset he felt had a uniquely attractive combination of a growing duopoly market and undermanaged operations.

As he had at Continental, Stiritz moved immediately to improve Energizer's products and marketing (including the creation of the famous ad campaign featuring the eponymous bunny), enhance distribution, and eliminate excess costs. With this series of actions, the first step in Stiritz's transformation of Ralston was complete. By the late 1980s, the percentage of Ralston's revenues coming from consumer packaged goods had risen to almost 90%.

This transformation had a remarkable effect on the company's key operating metrics. As the business mix at Ralston shifted toward branded products, pretax profit margins grew from 9% to 15%, and return on equity more than doubled, from 15% to 37%. When combined with a shrinking share base, this produced exceptional growth in earnings per share and returns to shareholders.

Throughout the balance of the 1980s, Stiritz continued to optimize his portfolio of brands, making selected divestitures and add-on acquisitions. Businesses that could not generate acceptable returns were sold (or closed). These divestitures included underperforming food brands (including the Van de Kamp's frozen seafood division, a rare acquisition mistake) and the company's legacy agricultural feed business, Purina Mills, which had become a commodity business with chronic low returns and limited growth prospects. His add-on acquisitions focused on the core battery and pet food brands, particularly in under-penetrated international markets. All these decisions were guided by a careful analysis of potential returns for shareholders.

Throughout the 1990s, Stiritz focused on continued opportunistic stock buybacks, occasional acquisitions, and, significantly, the use of a relatively new structuring device, the spin-off, to rationalize Ralston's brand portfolio. Stiritz came to believe that even with a relatively decentralized corporate structure, some of the company's businesses were not receiving the attention they deserved either internally or from Wall Street. To rectify this and to minimize taxes, Stiritz became an early user of spin-offs.

In a spin-off, a business unit is transferred from the parent company into a new corporate entity. Shareholders in the parent company are given equivalent pro rata ownership in the new company and can make their own decisions about whether to hold or sell these shares. Importantly, spin-offs highlight the value of smaller business units, allow for better alignment of management incentives, and, critically, defer capital gains taxes.

Stiritz began this program with the 1994 spin-off of a collection of smaller brands, including Chex cereals and the ski resorts, into a new entity, Ralcorp. He remained the chairman of the new entity, which had a separate board and two co-CEOs. Stiritz would continue to rationalize and optimize Ralston's portfolio with the 1998 sale of the company's remaining agricultural businesses (including the fast-growing protein technology business) for a record price to DuPont in a stock deal (again avoiding capital gains taxes).

His last move (and the largest by far) was the spin-off of Energizer Holdings in 2000, which at the time had an enterprise value equal to 15% of the company's total value. These spin-offs have all performed exceptionally well as independent publicly traded companies (Ralcorp, originally a collection of neglected assets, today has an enterprise value of $5 Billion).

This series of moves left Ralston at the dawn of the new millennium as a pure play pet food company, the dominant player by far in the US market. It did not escape Stiritz's attention that pruning unrelated businesses might make the company's core pet food brands more attractive to a strategic acquirer, and in 2001 the company was approached by Nestlé. After extensive negotiations (which Stiritz characteristically handled himself), the Swiss giant agreed to pay a record price for Ralston: $10.4 Billion, equal to an extraordinary multiple of fourteen times cash flow. This transaction was the capstone of Stiritz's tenure at Ralston.

During a period when all of his peers had excellent returns, Stiritz's numbers were exceptional. Over his 19 years at the helm, Stiritz's transformation of Ralston into a streamlined packaged goods company had a propulsive effect on the company's stock price. A dollar invested with Stiritz when he became CEO was worth $57 nineteen years later, a compound return of 20%, comfortably surpassing both his peers (17.7%) and the S&P (14.7%).

William Stiritz’s strategy for reshaping Ralston Purina.

Michael Mauboussin, now a well-respected investor at Legg Mason, covered Stiritz and Ralston Purina as his first research assignment at Drexel Burnham in the mid-1980s. He became fascinated by Ralston's maverick CEO and did an early comprehensive research report on the company, building on the work of his mentor, Alan Greditor, a rare Wall Street analyst whom Stiritz respected. With Greditor's coaching, Mauboussin came to appreciate Stiritz's unique approach to capital allocation.

When asked to summarize what made Stiritz different, Mauboussin told me, "Effective capital allocation requires a certain temperament. To be successful you have to think like an investor, dispassionately and probabilistically, with a certain coolness. Stiritz had that mindset."

Stiritz himself likened capital allocation to poker, in which the key skills were an ability to calculate odds, read personalities, and make large bets when the odds were overwhelmingly in your favor. He was an active acquirer who was also comfortable selling or spinning off businesses that he felt were mature or under appreciated by Wall Street.

As longtime Goldman Sachs analyst Nomi Ghez emphasized to me, the food business had traditionally been a very profitable, predictable business generally characterized by low growth. Alone among public company CEOs, Stiritz saw this combination of characteristics and arrived at a new approach for optimizing shareholder value.

In fact, he fundamentally changed the paradigm by actively deploying leverage to achieve substantially higher returns on equity, pruning less profitable businesses, acquiring related businesses, and actively repurchasing shares. In doing this, he was echoing the techniques of the pioneering private equity firms, including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR), which had successfully targeted underperforming packaged goods companies (Beatrice Foods and later RJR Nabisco) for some of the largest early leveraged buyouts (LBOs).

In fact, Stiritz was an underbidder on both Beatrice and RJR. He also made unsuccessful bids for Gillette and Gatorade.

How William Stiritz optimized Ralston Purina’s cash flow, debt, and handled proceeds from asset sales.

The primary sources of funds at Ralston during Stiritz's tenure were internal cash flow, debt, and, particularly in the early years, proceeds from asset sales.

Operating cash flow was a significant and growing source of funds throughout Stiritz's time at the helm. Margins steadily improved under his management, reflecting both a shifting mix toward branded products and a leaner, more decentralized operating philosophy. By the time of the Nestlé sale, Ralston's margins were the highest in the packaged goods industry.

Stiritz was the pioneer among consumer packaged goods CEOs in the use of debt. This was heresy in an industry that had long been characterized by exceptionally conservative financial management. Stiritz, however, saw that the prudent use of leverage could enhance shareholders' returns significantly. He believed that businesses with predictable cash flows should employ debt to enhance shareholder returns, and he made active use of leverage to finance stock repurchases and acquisitions, including his two largest, Energizer and Continental. Ralston consistently maintained an industry-high average debt-to-cash flow ratio during his tenure.

Stiritz's approach to sales and divestitures evolved over time. He started by selling noncore businesses, like the mushroom farms and the hockey team, that did not meet his criteria for profitability and returns, and these asset sales were an important early source of cash for the company. In this regard, there were no sacred cows (including the ancestral feed business). "Stiritz knew what things were worth and would sell any asset for the right price," Mauboussin told me approvingly. During this period, he was focused on divesting noncore assets at the best possible prices and redeploying the capital into higher-return packaged goods businesses like Energizer and the Continental Baking brands.

However, Stiritz eventually developed an appreciation for the tax inefficiency of asset sales and, as we've seen, began to use spin-offs, which he believed released entrepreneurial energy and creativity while deferring capital gains taxes. From the outset, Stiritz had been a believer in decentralization, working to reduce layers of corporate bureaucracy and giving responsibility and autonomy for the company's key businesses to a close-knit group of managers. He viewed spin-offs as a further move in this direction, "the ultimate decentralization," providing managers and shareholders with an attractive combination of transparency and autonomy and allowing managers to be compensated more directly on their operating results than was possible in the larger conglomerated structure of the mother company.

Stiritz also proved to be a very astute seller. After his initial flurry of divestitures in the early 1980s, he made only two asset sales, both of them large. The first was the sale to DuPont of Ralston's protein business. DuPont paid a very high price for this business, and Stiritz opted to take stock, thus deferring capital gains taxes. The other divestiture was the Nestlé sale, which, as we've seen, resulted in a record price of over $10 Billion. While Stiritz acknowledges today that the price was very attractive, he regrets not taking stock, given the strength of Nestlé's business and the capital gains tax incurred by his shareholders.

Outside of the steady, year-in, year-out pattern of debt service, internal capital expenditures, and (minimal) dividends, Stiritz's two primary uses of cash were share repurchases and acquisitions. His approach to both was opportunistic in the extreme.

Stiritz was the pioneer in the consumer packaged goods business when it came to stock buybacks. In the early 1980s when he started to repurchase stock, buybacks were still unusual and controversial. As one of Ralston's directors said at the time, "Why would you want to shrink the company. Aren't there any worthwhile growth initiatives?"

Stiritz, in contrast believed that repurchases were the highest-probability investments he could make, after convincing his board to support him, he became an active repurchaser. He would eventually repurchase a phenomenal 60% of Ralston's shares, second only to Henry Singleton among the CEOs in this book, and he would earn very attractive returns on these buybacks, averaging a long-term internal rate of return of 13%.

He was, however, a very frugal buyer, preferring opportunistic open-market purchases to larger tenders that might raise the stock price prematurely. These purchases were consistently made when P/E multiples were at cyclical low points. Stiritz even personally negotiated discounted brokerage rat these buybacks.

Stiritz believed buyback returns represented a handy benchmark for other internal capital investment decisions, particularly acquisitions. As his longtime lieutenant, Pat Mulcahy, said, "The hurdle always used for investment decisions was the share repurchase return. If an acquisition, with some certainty, could beat that return, it was worth doing." Conversely, if a potential acquisition's returns didn't meaningfully exceed the buyback return, Stiritz passed.

In his approach to acquisitions, Stiritz always sought an edge and focused on buying businesses that he believed could be improved by Ralston's marketing expertise and distribution clout. He preferred companies that had been undermanaged by prior owners; and, not coincidentally, his two largest acquisitions, Continental Baking and Energizer, were both small, neglected divisions within giant conglomerates. The long-term returns from these two purchases were excellent, with Energizer generating a 21% compound return over fourteen years and Continental generating a 13% return over an 11-year holding period.

Stiritz focused on sourcing acquisitions through direct contact with sellers, avoiding competitive auctions whenever possible.The Continental Baking acquisition was sourced from a letter he sent directly to ITT chairman Rand Araskog, thus circumventing an auction.

Stiritz believed that Ralston should only pursue opportunities that presented compelling returns under conservative assumptions. He disdained the false precision of detailed financial models, focusing instead on a handful of key variables: market growth, competition, potential operating improvements, and, always, cash generation. As he told me, "I really only cared about the key assumptions going into the model. First, I wanted to know about the underlying trends in the market: its growth and competitive dynamics."

His protégé, Pat Mulcahy, who would later run the business, described Stiritz's approach to the seminal Energizer acquisition: "When the opportunity to buy Energizer came up, a small group of us met at 1:00 PM and got the seller's books. We performed a back of the envelope LBO model, met again at 4:00 PM and decided to bid $1.4 Billion. Simple as that. We knew what we needed to focus on. No massive studies and no bankers." Again, Stiritz's approach (similar to those of Tom Murphy, John Malone, Katharine Graham, and others) featured a single sheet of paper and an intense focus on key assumptions, not a forty-page set of projections.

Why and how William Stiritz pursued a leveraged buyout strategy with Ralston Purina.

Stiritz, aware of the early LBOs in the packaged goods industry, consciously adopted a private equity-like mind-set. His managerial worldview was neatly summarized by Mulcahy: "Stiritz ran Ralston somewhat akin to an LBO. He was one of the first to see the benefit to shareholders of higher leverage as long as cash flows were strong and predictable. He simply got rid of businesses that were cash drains (no matter their provenance) and invested more deeply in existing strong businesses through massive share purchases interspersed with the occasional acquisition that met our return targets."

Stiritz married nuts-and-bolts packaged goods marketing expertise with financial acumen, an unusual combination. He focused on newfangled metrics, like EBITDA and internal rate of return (IRR), that were becoming the lingua franca of the nascent private equity industry, and he eschewed more traditional accounting measures, such as reported earnings and book value, that were Wall Street's preferred financial metrics at the time.

He had particular disdain for book value, once declaring during a rare appearance at an industry conference that "book equity has no meaning in our business," a statement that was greeted with stunned silence by the audience, according to longtime analyst John Bierbusse. Mauboussin added, "You have to have fortitude to look past book value, EPS, and other standard accounting metrics which don't always correlate with economic reality."

William Stiritz’s fierce independence.

Stiritz was fiercely independent, and actively disdained the advice of outside advisers. He believed that charisma was overrated as a managerial attribute and that analytical skill was a critical prerequisite for a CEO and the key to independent thinking: "Without it, chief executives are at the mercy of their bankers and CFOs." Stiritz observed that many CEOs came from functional areas (legal, marketing, manufacturing, sales) where this sort of analytical ability was not required. Without it, he believed they were severely handicapped. His counsel was simple: "Leadership is analysis."

This independent mind-set translated into an innate suspicion bordering on distrust of outside advisers, particularly investment bankers, whom Stiritz once described as "parasitic." He was surgical in his use of advisers—using as few as possible, always in a carefully targeted manner—and he was aggressive in negotiating their fees, holding up the multimillion-dollar Nestlé deal when he felt the bankers were overcharging him. He made a point of using different bankers for various transactions so that none felt overly secure about his business.

He was well known for showing up alone to important due diligence meetings or negotiations where the other side of the table was crowded with bankers and lawyers. Stiritz relished this unorthodox approach. A then junior banker at Goldman Sachs told me of a late-night due diligence session during the RIR Nabisco sale process when Stiritz came to a conference room at the Goldman offices alone, armed only with a yellow legal pad, and proceeded to walk through the key operating assumptions one by one before making a final bid and going to bed.

How William Stiritz manages his time.

Stiritz jealously guarded his time, eschewing high-visibility, time-consuming philanthropic boards, and avoiding casual lunches as"mostly a waste of time." As he explained, "It got to the point where they were taking up too much time, so I stopped them completely." He did, however, make time to sit on other corporate boards, viewing this as a unique opportunity to expose himself to new situations and ideas.

He was always a fox-like sponge for new thinking regardless of its origin. John McMillin, a longtime industry analyst, once wrote,"Some people are innovators and some people borrow ideas from others. Stiritz is both (and that's meant as a compliment)." He consciously carved out blocks of time in his schedule to wrestle with the key issues in the business alone, without distraction, whether on a Florida beach or in his home office in St. Louis.

He avoided time-consuming interactions with Wall Street and retained, in the words of analyst John Bierbusse, "a certain Garbo-like quality," rarely speaking to analysts, virtually never attending conferences, and never issuing quarterly guidance.

Books Written on Bill Stiritz

The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success

In this refreshing, counterintuitive audiobook, author Will Thorndike brings to bear the analytical wisdom of a successful career in investing, closely evaluating the performance of companies and their leaders. You will meet eight individualistic CEOs whose firms' average returns outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of twenty in other words, an investment of $10,000 with each of these CEOs, on average, would have been worth over $1.5 million twenty-five years later. You may not know all their names, but you will recognize their companies: General Cinema, Ralston Purina, The Washington Post Company, Berkshire Hathaway, General Dynamics, Capital Cities Broadcasting, TCI, and Teledyne.

Read my book summary and takeaways →

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer and angel investor. He's led design work at Apple, Square, and now ClassDojo. He's an early investor in Notion,, and Anduril. He founded Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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