William K. Howell resigned as head of Miller Brewing Co. and was replaced by Senior Vice President Leonard J. Goldstein.
Some analysts said that because Howell, president and chief executive, was replaced by a Miller executive and not by a rising star from the corporate staff of its parent, Philip Morris Cos., the change indicated that the world's second-largest brewer may be for sale.
But Philip Morris said Miller remained an important part of its operations.
Miller, acquired for about $210 million in 1971 by Philip Morris, has seen its market share erode since 1978 to Anheuser-Busch Co., the world's largest brewer with almost 40% of the market.
"I think they (Philip Morris) have to be disappointed in their performance at Miller," said Robert Weinberg, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Eric Shephard, industry analyst at the Beer Marketer's Insights newsletter, said: "Philip Morris says they are happy with Miller. But analysts keep saying Philip Morris is ready to sell Miller if the right bid comes along."
Philip Morris would not comment directly about whether it would sell Miller, which markets Miller High Life, Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, Old Milwaukee and Meisterbrau. Philip Morris spokesman Steven Forsyth said: "First of all, we consider that a rumor and we don't comment on rumors."
Forsyth referred to a statement by Philip Morris Chairman Hamish Maxwell in announcing the change in Miller's hierarchy. "Miller is an important part of Philip Morris, and we expect it to contribute strongly to our growth . . .," Maxwell said.
Philip Morris said Goldstein, 60, who joined Miller in 1982, should "help Miller realize its potential for outstanding performance."
The company revealed little about why Howell, 57, was leaving, other than to say he had decided to take early retirement.
"We regret that Bill Howell has decided to retire after 32 years of service to our company. Under him Miller led the industry in the introduction of successful new products and outperformed the industry in sales," the statement said.
But Jerry Steinman, of the Beer Marketer's Insights newsletter, said: "I think that was just a pro forma statement. I don't want to go into detail, but I would have to say that replacement of Bill Howell is a positive for Miller."
Besides its massive presence in the tobacco industry, Philip Morris' products include Oscar Mayer meats, Jell-O pudding, Maxwell House coffee, Post cereals and Ronzoni pasta.
"The fact is that Philip Morris doesn't like to be in any business where it isn't No. 1," said Weinberg, who at one time was a vice president for Anheuser-Busch.