Apple Bites Back at EU; IMF Chief Found Guilty But She’s Still Allright; Lands’ End Going for New Beginning with Latest CEO

An inconvenient target…

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The EU might be demanding a whopping $14 billion from Apple, but it’s not going to happen so quickly. Or easily. Or at all, if Apple has its way. Back in 2014, the EU accused Ireland of skirting international tax laws when it let Apple park tens of billions of dollars there in order to keep it from getting into the grubby hands of pesky tax collectors. Apparently, Apple only paid a corporate tax rate of 3.8% on $200 billion of overseas profits. In exchange for keeping its profits there, Apple kept jobs there, all safe and secure. The EU said the tax deal amounted to illegal state aid and Apple needs to cough up the record setting fine. Both Apple and Ireland deny that they did anything wrong and think the EU needs to get its stories straight.  Apple says it was singled out by the EU because of its massive success – “a convenient target” as its lawyer so eloquently put it, and that the EU commission conveniently blew off tax experts that were brought in special by authorities in Ireland.  In the meantime, Ireland says that other countries should close their own loopholes and is accusing the EU of overstepping its boundaries as it interferes in member states’ sovereign affairs.

Guilty but not…

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She may have been found guilty of negligence over a payout that happened back in 2008, but it’s not entirely clear if IMF Chief Christine Lagarde is actually guilty of anything.  The trouble started when Lagarde was France’s Finance Minister. Her boss was none other than President Nicholas Sarkozy (half-brother-in-law to Mary-Kate Olsen, fyi). President Sarkozy’s good buddy was this tycoon named Bernard Tapie who got really angry with the French government and then sued it. You see, Tapie sold his stake in athletic company, Adidas, to French bank Credit Lyonnais, which as luck would have it, was state owned. The bank then went ahead and sold that very same stake for a whole lot more money than what Tapie was paid. Tapie cried fraud on the government and became embroiled in a fifteen year legal battle. Enter Lagarde, who against official advice, recommended private arbitration in lieu of continuing to pursue the expensive legal battle. Tapie was awarded an outrageously high 400 million euros (roughly $417 million), and for this Lagarde was found guilty because she didn’t contest the award (which came from public funds, mind you). Incidentally, investigators suspected that the arbitration process was not kosher and was actually rigged in Tapie’s favor. He has since been ordered to pay the award back. In the meantime, Lagarde isn’t even facing any jail time, much less a fine. That’s because the state, according to its own opinion, had a weak case, while Lagarde has an excellent reputation and is in good international standing. Boom.

Canvas is so last year…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lands’ End is going luxe again. After dumping its posh CEO, Federica Marchionni – after less than two years –  the company just announced it hired Jerome Griffith, formerly of Tumi, who just this year wrapped up selling the company to Samsonite Luggage to the tune of $1.8 billion. Griffith also held posts at Gap Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger and has a solid reputation for turning companies around. It was only three months ago that the company booted Marchionni, who previously held posts at Dolce & Gabbana and Ferrari. But alas, she couldn’t make it past the two year mark, as her vision for making Lands’ End an upscale brand, via the Canvas line, did not resonate with a customer bas that wasn’t even looking for upscale. Hence, she went the way of acid wash and parachute pants. Her vision was, in fact, so at odds with the Lands’ End customer base that the company had to eat a $4.4 million loss from the line.  The company also didn’t care for the fact that she stayed put in New York while Lands’ End offices were already comfortably situated in Wisconsin. Geography won’t be an issue for Griffith who is gearing up to set up house and home in the in the state. Lands’s End is counting on Griffith’s business acumen. During his run at Tumi, he saw revenues increase from $196 million in 2009 to $547 million in 2015.  And Lands’ End needs all the help it can get after watching its sales take in a loss last year of close to $20 million.

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EU Wants to Take a Big Tax Bite Out of Apple; Google Takes On Uber. Sort of; Abercrombie & Fitch Teen Ditch

Bite me…

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The EU commission is coming down hard on Apple by slapping the world’s most valuable company with a $14.5 billion bill for back taxes. The EU felt Apple illegally received tax aid in the form of a sweetheart tax deal from Ireland. However, both Apple and Ireland deny that allegation and contend that everything they did was totally legit. More than 700 U.S. companies currently have some type of business set up in Ireland where they enjoy a reduced corporate tax rate compared to that of the U.S. The EU however says that rate is too reduced and says Apple pays much MUCH less than the 12.5% corporate tax rate in the country. Companies can set up tax structures that allow them to pay even less.  EU officials charge that Apple did just that and Apple paid only a .005% rate on its profits in 2014.  I’d love to meet Apple’s accountants who set that one up. Just saying. The U.S treasury isn’t happy about the situation either and feels U.S.firms are being unfairly targeted and that such investigations are unfair. Senator Chuck Schumer even called this latest judgement a “cheap money grab.” Don’t expect to bump into him on your next European vacay. According to the treasury, judgements of this type could undermine U.S. investments in Europe. Starbucks already got hit with a $33 million back-tax deal while Amazon and McDonald’s are currently staring at the wrong end of their own EU investigations. The government believes that U.S. taxpayers will likely bear the brunt of the EU’s very inconvenient decision because Apple would basically deduct the $14.5 billion from taxes that it owes to the U.S. government.

Anything you can do Google can do better…

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Search engine giant, Google, is now offering its own ride-sharing app to San Francisco residents. If you’re thinking Google’s encroaching on Uber and Lyft’s turf then…you might be right. Sort of. Google began a pilot program back in May that allows commuters to carpool at cheaper rates then Uber and Lyft. Much cheaper. In fact, the rates are so cheap – think 54 cents per mile – that there is no incentive to even become a taxi driver. What’s more is that Google doesn’t even take a cut. Yet. By using Waze, which Google acquired back in 2013, commuters connect with other commuters headed in the same direction. Uber, which is currently valued at around $68 billion might begin to take issue with Google’s latest plans, assuming they’ll expand. And they will. Ironically, Google invested $258 million into Uber back in 2013. The situation between the two companies has gotten quite dicey as Google exec David Drummond recently resigned from Uber’s board given all the conflicts that are rising from these latest developments.

Smells like twenty-something spirit…

 

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Abercrombie & Fitch, purveyor of trendy teen clothing, has officially posted its fourteenth straight quarter of losses. The company saw a decline of a 4%, which was more than what was expected. A&F posted a net loss of $13 million, which was a brutal change from last year’s same quarter loss of $810,000. Net sales fell to $783, a far cry from last year’s $818 million. Naturally, as with all bad earnings reports, a tumble in shares ensued, with shares of the trendy retailer taking a 20% hit. Besides a strong dollar, the chain can’t compete with the likes of H&M, Zara and a whole bunch of other clothing sellers. Back in May, the company had predicted an improvement. But that didn’t happen and now A&F isn’t even expecting one in the near future. Which might explain why the company will reshift its focus from teens to bona-fide money making twenty-somethngs who can afford the clothes A&F is selling. Considering that more than 50% of A&F’s customers are adults over the age of 20, this seems like a prudent move. So if you find yourself at one of A&F’s 744 locations – of which 60 of them will be closing –  you might not want to be so quick to walk away as the company attempts to rebrand itself as the “iconic American casual luxury brand.” I don’t know why that just made me think of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But it did.  The clothing company will be selling clothes for actual grown-ups who once upon a time were the same teens who spent their parents’ hard-earned cash at this very establishment.

 

 

Lookout China! Here Comes Walmart. Again; To Brexit? Or Not to Brexit? That is the Question; Volkswagen’s Emission Impossible

Ni-hao, Walmart…

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Because Walmart isn’t big enough, the retailer has now teamed up with China’s number two e-commerce site to take on…China. Alibaba, in case you hand’t heard, holds the illustrious top spot. In any case, Walmart will be selling its commerce marketplace in China to JD.com and in return Walmart will gain about 5% of JD.com’s total shares, which comes out to about 145 million shares, give or take. Those shares are said be valued at about $3 billion, depending on whom you ask. By the way, in terms of revenue growth, JD.com has outpaced Alibaba for almost the last two years. Walmart currently has a marketplace platform in place in China called Yihaodian, but JD.com will be taking it over in hopes of finally achieving some solid retail love in China, which has eluded the mega-tailer, thus far. Walmart’s thinking positive thoughts that this deal will help increase its market-share in one of the biggest economies in the world. Walmart opened its first store in China back in 1996, yet it is a bit bummed because it only has about 430 stores there as expansion in China has been underwhelming.

Hail or not to the Brexit?

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June 23rd’s Brexit vote is just around the corner so it would be prudent to discuss why the U.S. should care about British politics, even if its politicians aren’t nearly as entertaining as ours. So, in case you hadn’t heard, at issue is whether Britain should exit from the EU. Hence, the term “Brexit.” Catchy, huh? Brexit advocates cherish their sovereignty and find that as a member of the EU, they don’t find themselves enjoying their sovereignty quite the way they’d like. While that is awfully patriotic, there are major MAJOR economic drawbacks to a Brexit. British Prime Minister David Cameron is worried that a Brexit will hurt wages and usher in an era of uncertain economic stability. Economists and other assorted experts on the matter are worried that the pound, Britain’s currency, will plunge in value, should Britain make a run for it. A plunge in value of a currency is never a good thing, especially for the country whose currency is sent plunging. Of course, tourists and others buying Bristish goods and services might not mind that so much since everything for sale there would become a relative bargain. It’s also important to consider the potential epic losses for Americans whose economic interests are heavily dependent on exports to the U.K. But there are also plenty of other Americans who might become inclined to ditch their investments and other economic opportunities in Britain as well. An exit from the EU would require all sorts of new trade agreements – for everyone  – and those things just take forever to draw up. Britain’s interests would almost certainly take a back seat to the bigger and more profitable interests of the loftier EU. As of now, there are no tariffs between the 27 members of the EU. A Brexit would change that for Britain and make tariffs a way of life, together with high tea and Harrod’s. So I guess it’s a good sign – just not for Brexit advocates – that polls show a Brexit isn’t likely.  The British sterling rose and one of its indexes, the FTSE  (rhymes with tootsie) also picked up some steam as a result of the anti-Brexit poll numbers.

Smelling a rat…

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Ex-Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn is under investigation, which probably shocks no one. He is under investigation because German prosecutors suspect that Winterkorn violated securities laws since he waited too long to disclose to investors the potential cost of the ugly emissions scandal that continues to plague the auto maker. If you recall, the EPA is more than a bit peeved that Volkswagen manipulated results of emissions tests on its vehicles, with more than 11 million diesel vehicles poisoning the air we breathe. Winterkorn apparently knew about the emissions problems for over a year before he made any comments on it. He should have said something well before September 22, 2015. But he didn’t. And herein lies the problem. Even if he did resign days later. Of course, blame games in major companies have become somewhat of a sport, or in this case, a veritable comedy. Executives at the company are pointing fingers at a handful of mid-level employees – I kid you not – and assume that the public is going to believe them when they say that top management were completely oblivious to emissions manipulations taking place right under their executive-polished noses. Incidentally, there is another executive who is also under investigation but his/her identity has yet to be revealed. What has been revealed is that it is not ex-Volkwagen CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch. Lucky him.  According to the investigation, 17 people are said to be involved. But in the meantime, hundreds of lawsuits continue to mount against Volkswagen, and the car company has plans to pony up a $10 billion settlement in the U.S. come June 28.

Newspapers Gone Charitable; Not All is Golden in Europe for McDonald’s; Starbucks Not Letting an Itty Bitty Downturn Get in its Way

Read all about it…

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Not-for-profit has been taking on a whole new meaning lately for some unlikely reasons: newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com have gone tax-exempt. It’s probably not the first place you think of when you want to make a charitable contribution, but it’ll gladly take one now. Along with an additional $20 million donation, billionaire H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who controlled these publications, took the Philadelphia Media Network, tweaked things around a bit and morphed the newspapers into a public benefit corporation (PBC) that will be called The Institute for Journalism in New Media.  A little wordy, maybe, but the entity itself is dedicated to “independent public service journalism and investigative reporting that positively impacts the community, while also creating innovative multimedia content.” Got that?  The paper will still be run as a “for-profit” biz while getting you a tax deduction in the process.  In case you didn’t know, Kickstarter is also a PBC. Just saying. It’s an interesting idea just not an original one for a newspaper as there are a few other newspapers in Florida and Connecticut that have taken this approach. It’s a way to try and make newspapers relevant and successful in a digital era, not to mention, a last-ditch attempt to try and keep a publication from going bust

Hamburglar?

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So what are the Golden Arches accused of doing this time? Three Italian consumer organizations are charging that the fast-food chain is causing franchises in Italy to inflate the cost of menu items. You see, in order to snag a European franchise lease, a lessee must sign a twenty year contract – a contract that is twice as long as what other franchises require. But then, McDonald’s is also accused of licensing the premises for above market rates – by about ten times –  making it nothing short of a big pain in the but to switch competitors. So, in order to defray the costs of these above-market lease rates, European McDonald’s franchises jack up the prices on menu items with consumers bearing the brunt of the cost. At least that’s according to a survey cited by the coalition filing the complaint. Apparently, a whopping 68% – 97% of McDonald’s menu items in various Italian cities are more expensive in franchises than in company stores. Franchises make up 75% of McDonald’s European revenue and worldwide McDonald’s has made $9.27 billion in revenue from these franchises. But before the EU even considers launching a formal investigation into these alleged shifty practices, authorities will first send out a formal questionnaire. Depending on how well those questions are addressed will determine if there is sufficient cause to even open an investigation. Besides, those same EU authorities are already busy investigating McDonald’s in Luxembourg over allegations that it managed to evade paying $1 billion in taxes on its European operations.

Slowdown? What slowdown?

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There might be an economic downturn in China, but that’s not stopping Starbuck’s from expanding its empire there. Sure there are already 2,000 Starbucks stores caffeinating the world’s second largest economy. However, Starbucks feels that the country could use at least 1,400 more stores and plans to have them all serving up lattes by 2019. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz feels that China has the potential to become the company’s biggest market. And that’s not so crazy considering that China is already Starbucks’ second largest market and is the fastest growing one too. At a recent Starbucks event in China called the “Starbucks China Partner-Family Forum” (Alibaba’s Jack Ma was at the event so you know it was a big deal), Schultz wanted to reassure the Chinese that he totally gets their culture and has tremendous admiration for it. Hence, he made sure to acknowledge and give major props to the parents of its baristas. In fact, Starbucks wants so badly play nice with China and shower the country with oodles of corporate respect that he is offering to cover 50% of monthly housing expenses for Starbucks employees in China. For baristas there who so valiantly served up drinks for ten years, Starbucks is offering them a “career coffee break” – a year long paid sabbatical. Hěn hǎo!

 

Golden Earnings for the Golden Arches; European Bitcoin Victory; Say It Ain’t So: Lego Brick Shortage

You deserve a break today…

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Image courtesy of tiverylucky/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Looks like McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook’s job looks pretty secure for the foreseeable future now that McDonald’s posted some awesome third quarter earnings. The numbers were so good that shares of the company jumped 8% and took the Dow Jones Industrial Average up more than 250 points as well. Sales in the U.S. brought a nice little surprise of a 1% increase. And even though wage raises and benefit improvements did take a big chunk out of the Golden Arches operating costs, the company still earned $1.31 billion and $1.40 per share. That was a 23% jump over last year’s $1.07 billion with $1.09 added to shares, and marked the first time in two years that McDonald’s saw improved sales.The much-hyped turnaround plan is actually working with thanks in part to McDonald’s All-Day Breakfast and the introduction of the Premium Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Deluxe Sandwich. Try saying that one five times fast. Or even three. Some franchises, however, are’t digging this all-day breakfast because, besides adding many more menu items, those breakfast items tend to be cheaper and negatively affect sales at some stores. Revenue fell to $6.62 billion, but it was only a 5% drop from last year’s $6.99 billion. And considering that Wall Street expected  McDonald’s to pull in only $6.41 billion and $1.27 per share, nobody’s too upset over that 5% dip.

VAT do you want already?

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Image courtesy of Victor Habbick/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Score one for Bitcoin as the virtual currency is considered tax-free. Well, in Europe, anyways. Just like plain old, regular, not-so-virtual cash. Europe’s highest court ruled that  Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are on par with real money and European citizens can scoop up as much of the virtual stuff as they want without having to pay VAT – a  tax that presumably taxes the nerves of anyone who has to pay it. This piece of Bitcoin drama began with Swedish Bitcoin operator David Hedqvist who felt that the currency should not be taxed. However, the Swedish tax authority, Skatteverket, disagreed vehemently and brought the issue to EU’s highest court. And while David Hedqvist is no doubt celebrating this recent victory, there is still one aspect about Bitcoin that has yet to be determined: is it legal tender? To be continued…

Everything is not Awesome…

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Image courtesy of nonicknamephoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Scary news from the world’s largest toymaker, Lego. It seems the Danish plastic brick manufacturer might not have enough brick’s to go around. But rest assured, that here in the States, our plastic brick supply is safe. For now. With The Lego Movie, Star Wars and The Avengers all part of the Lego family, the company can’t seem to make enough toys to keep up with the demand. In just the first half of the year, sales for the toys were up a whopping 18%. To help alleviate some of the shortage, Lego will be expanding three factories in Mexico, Hungary and, of course, Lego’s hometown in Denmark. The company even has plans to expand in China. But everything may still not be awesome in certain parts of Europe, as they are likely to be affected by this very tragic plastic brick shortage.

Wild Things at the ECB Conference; Google Gets Antitrust Slapped by EU; Smith & Wesson’s Shares Shoot Up

Think you’re having a bad day?

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Image courtesy of noppasinw/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank just might be having an even worse day than you, this April 15. And he didn’t even have to file his taxes. As Mr. Draghi was speaking at a conference in Frankfurt, Germany today when a female protester literally jumped onto the table from which he spoke and threw a stack of papers and confetti at him screaming, “End ECB dictatorship!” Now folks have been known to take intense issue with what they consider to be measures that are just a bit to harsh for fiscally challenged European countries, especially Greece and Spain, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say Ashton Kutcher was somewhere in the room telling Mario Draghi he’d just been punk’d. But…Ashton wasn’t there. Alas, if only the rest of the conference had been as exciting. Instead the ECB President went on to discuss the less riveting topics surrounding the state of the European economy, how it’s allegedly improving and that the $1.2 trillion quantitative easing program is apparently working. In case you were wondering just what on earth is quantitative easing, or QE, as the cool kids call it, it’s a super special type of monetary policy used when the regular one doesn’t seem to be working properly (the details of which I will not delve so as to maintain my audience). As for the protester, Josephine Witt, who managed to pass through multiple security checks posing as a journalist, she gleefully tweeted: “I would say, the #ecb ‘s security service is just as good as putins.”

Speaking of Europe…

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Google’s not having the best day in Europe either. The all-mighty search engine is getting called out by the European Union for abuses of power. The EU is handing Google a “Statement of Objections,” with an antitrust complaint that accuses the company of favoring and promoting its own services and products over competitors in user search results and comparison shopping. Google has a 90% share in Europe’s search engine market and 35% of Google’s ad revenue comes from Europe. The United States also began a similar investigation but dropped it after Google graciously agreed to make some changes. The changes, however, weren’t enough for companies like Microsoft, Yelp, Expedia etc., who are happy about this probe since they feel that Google’s search engine dominance is making for a very uneven playing field. The EU is also investigating whether Google forces mobile device companies to use them and whether or not those companies are even allowed to tweak Android software.

Shoot ’em up…

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Image courtesy of Surachai/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Firearms: Love ’em or hate ’em matters not when there’s money involved. Shares of gun maker Smith & Wesson saw a 13% increase on shares today as the company announced that orders for firearms are picking up.  In fact, the stock hit a high today of $14.75 and is up over 50% since the beginning of 2015. Last year the company took in over $626 million in sales, a record for the company. Even though sales aren’t expected to come close to that figure this year, Smith & Wesson is still expected to rake in between $546 – $550 million dollars –  and no one seems to be taking issue with that. Well, at least not on Wall Street.

GM Says Nyet to Russia Deliveries; Start Spreading the News: Gov Cuomo Bans Fracking; Kraft-y New CEO

Rubles the wrong way…

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual hours long press conference where he discussed the plunging ruble. He said the economic recovery could take up to two years and, of course, he made sure to point his country’s finger (presumably the middle one) at the US and the EU because he says plunging oil prices and economic sanctions are to blame. Oh and also the central banks messed up too because they apparently didn’t respond fast enough to economic issues as they arose. Darn central banks! Then GM went ahead and suspended deliveries to Russia, becoming one of the latest western companies to do so. And who can blame them. After all, when currencies drop, the companies lose big bucks.  But considering GM only sold 170,000 vehicles in Russia so far this year  – it sells more than that in a single month over here – its sure not to put any major crimp in their business. Apple also shut down operations while other companies, like BMW, took the route of raising their prices to make up for the drop in the ruble rate. Why his love life came up during the press conference is a mystery, but at least now we know that Vladimir Putin is in love –  and somebody even loves him back –  according to him anyway.

Frack off…

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Image courtesy of xedos4/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has made it official: New York has become the first state to ban the ever-controversial fracking process, a decision that puts a major chink in the oil and gas industry. The process, which involves tapping into natural gas by using high-pressure water blasts and, of course, chemicals, has been under a moratorium in New York State since 2008 after it was felt that more research was needed to see just how bad the process is for the environment and our health. At a press conference, Governor Cuomo handed the reins over to health and environmental officials who said the issues are too great to allow it to happen and conveniently had several studies on hand to back up their claims. Now if they could just do something about those traffic jams…

Nothing cheesy about it…

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Image courtesy of digitalart/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In a move that shocked analysts, who generally make it a habit of predicting things, Kraft CEO Tony Vernon, who is but 58 years young, announced that his retirement from the company will officially take place on December 27. Vernon has been at the post since October of 2012 and will stay on as an adviser until March. His replacement will be John Cahill, who already has Pepsico  gracing his resume. Kraft, the intrepid force behind Velveeta cheese and the ever-malleable Jell-O, said that it needs to make big changes quickly if it wants to keep up with the constantly changing needs of the food industry. Sounds fair, considering Kraft saw an 11% drop in its third quarter profits.