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UPDATE 3-Barry Callebaut CEO bows out amid signs of chocolate recovery

* De Saint-Affrique to leave end-Aug, tipped for Danone job

* Americas chief Boone to succeed as CEO on Sept. 1

* H1 net profit dips, in line with sales volume decline

* Decline in volumes was less in Q2 than in Q1 (Adds analyst comment, shares)

April 22 (Reuters) - Barry Callebaut CEO Antoine de Saint-Affrique will step down at the end of August after nearly six years at the helm, the Swiss chocolate maker said on Thursday, amid speculation he is in the running for the top job at French dairy group Danone.

De Saint-Affrique will be succeeded by Americas chief Peter Boone, a former Unilever executive.

His departure comes amid signs of a recovery in demand for chocolate after a tough year in which the COVID-19 pandemic reduced impulse buying, out-of-home consumption and gift-giving.

Since he took the reins in October 2015, Barry Callebaut’s share price has more than doubled. Group sales rose by 17% and profit by more than two-thirds before the pandemic hit in 2020.

The company, which supplies food companies such as Nestle and Mondelez, reported a dip in sales volumes and net profit for the six months to Feb. 28. It confirmed its mid-term guidance of 5-7% volume growth.

“The company can look back at a very successful phase, both in terms of growth and cash development,” Vontobel analyst Jean-Philippe Bertschy said of de Saint-Affrique’s tenure.

Bernstein’s Bruno Monteyne and Kepler Cheuvreux’s Jon Cox said de Saint-Affrique was short-listed for the Danone CEO job.

Danone, which holds its annual shareholder meeting on April 29, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Barry Callebaut declined to comment.

Danone, which reported a 3.3% fall in first-quarter sales on Tuesday, abruptly ousted its chairman and CEO Emmanuel Faber last month.

IMPROVING TREND

Boone joined Barry Callebaut as chief innovation officer in 2012 and assumed additional responsibilities including sustainability efforts.

The Dutch national has led the Americas division since late 2017 where he “achieved solid, profitable, volume growth and expanded its customer portfolio,” the Zurich-based company said.

“Peter’s appointment will ensure continuity and a smooth handover,” Chairman Patrick De Maeseneire said in a statement.

Sales volume at Barry Callebaut fell 2.9% in the six months through February, with a 1.3% decline in the second quarter improving on the 4.3% drop in the first.

The market is “still challenging” with COVID-19 restrictions in Europe and elsewhere, but restaurant business is improving, de Saint-Affrique told reporters. The firm said Eastern Europe and South America were among markets where growth was strong.

First-half net profit fell in line with volumes to 205.7 million Swiss francs ($224.5 million).

Barry Callebaut shares were up 0.7% at 1225 GMT.

$1 = 0.9163 Swiss francs Reporting by Siddharth Cavale in Bengaluru and Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Mark Potter

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