By Martinne Geller and Svea Herbst-Bayliss
LONDON/BOSTON (Reuters) - Nine months into leading the world's biggest packaged food company, Nestle SA <NESN.S> Chief Executive Mark Schneider got a tentative thumbs-up from a prominent investor, who praised his early steps on Friday but said there was more work to be done.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, whose firm Third Point made a $3.5 billion investment in Nestle in June, told his clients that he was pleased but not satisfied in a letter viewed by Reuters.
Loeb commended how the new CEO had shifted the tone, saying Schneider "has set a new course for Nestle" but "there is much more opportunity to unlock value."
Nestle declined to comment.
The positive review suggested Schneider, a German who moved to Switzerland to become Nestle's first external leader in nearly a century, was for now safe from an activist-inspired challenge. Such showdowns at large U.S. corporations have cost eight CEOs their jobs this year.
Third Point was especially complimentary about Schneider's presentation at an investor seminar in London last month, saying it showed "a new approach of greater investor responsiveness."
Loeb was at the meeting but kept a low profile, without asking questions of the CEO or answering journalists' questions on the sidelines. However, there have been plenty of private conversations, with frequent phone calls between New York and Vevey, a person familiar with them said.
By staying in the background, for now, Loeb is giving Schneider time to steer Europe's most valuable company through its weakest growth in more than two decades, as consumers ditch processed foods for fresher, healthier options.
That may not last forever. Loeb's sharply worded letters to CEOs are legendary and he has agitated for ousters of leaders at companies such as Yahoo and Sotheby's <BID.N>. This year alone, CEOs at General Electric Co <GE.N>, Pandora, Tiffany & Co <TIF.N>, Buffalo Wild Wings Inc <BWLD.O> and CSX Corp <CSX.O> lost their jobs amid pressure from other activist investors.
Third Point spelled out its demands for Nestle months ago and reiterated them in Friday's letter: specific margin targets, a faster pace of share buybacks, a reshaped portfolio and the sale of Nestle's stake in cosmetics giant L'Oreal <OREP.PA>.
Schneider has delivered on some of those goals.
Nestle - home to Gerber baby food, Kit Kat bars and Nespresso coffee - set a margin target for the first time last month, following similar moves from rivals Unilever PLC <ULVR.L> and Danone SA <DANO.PA>.
Nestle has also been buying back stock nearly every day since the September meeting as part of a $21 billion repurchase plan, and is selling its U.S. confectionery business and buying niche brand Blue Bottle.
On Third Point's wish list is a sale of the 23 percent stake Nestle owns in French cosmetics company L'Oreal.
When L'Oreal's heiress Liliane Bettencourt died last month, speculation mounted about the companies' future relationship, which dates back 40 years.
Separately on Friday, L'Oreal Chief Executive Officer Jean-Paul Agon said he foresaw no changes in the company's shareholding in the near future.
(Reporting by Martinne Geller in London and Svea Herbst-Bayliss in Boston; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Andrew Hay)