Barnes Departure To Have No Effect On Bread Auction

Brenda Barnes stepped down today as Sara Lee Corp.’s chairwoman and CEO, but her departure should have little effect on the company’s planned sale of its bread business.

Barnes, who has been on medical leave since May 14 because of a stroke, is leaving Sara Lee to focus on her health. The Downers Grove, Ill.-based company is now searching for a successor and is considering both internal and external candidates.

“This is no big news,” says one banker. “It was expected that she would leave for health reasons.”

Barnes has been CEO for five years. Under her tenure, Sara Lee has sold off several units, including its body-care business and air-freshener unit. In July, Sara Lee put its North American bread unit up for sale, with hopes of garnering up to $1 billion. BofA was hired to manage the process.

With or without Barnes, Sara Lee is expected to have a tough time selling its bread business, sources say.

Pepperidge Farms, which is owned by Campbell Soup Co., has showed interest in the unit, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Other potential bidders include: Grupo Bimbo S.A. de C.V.; Flowers Foods Inc.;  Canada’s George Weston, which owns Loblaw Co. Ltd.; and, Weston Foods.

Interstate Bakeries, which is owned by Ripplewood Holdings, also could be in play.

Sara Lee’s bread unit is not believed to be deeply distressed, and PE firms like Cerberus, the Blackstone Group and Comvest Group could be interested.

Officials for Sara Lee declined comment.