Five Things to Know About PepsiCo CEO

With her personality, PepsiCo’s new CEO should shake up the whole food industry.

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By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

I think it’s interesting when a strong personality takes the helm of a food company — or any company, for that matter.

When a Gary Rodkin takes the top office at ConAgra, for instance, you know what to expect: a studied, business-like remake of the company. But when a Carly Fiorina takes over … well, the ripples are still being felt, aren’t they?

Indra Nooyi is no Carly Fiorina (everyone at Pepsi exhales), but I get the impression she is going to leave her mark on this global, multi-category company.

Why all this fuss over a cola company? You know PepsiCo is far from that. With the acquisitions of Frito-Lay, then Tropicana and more recently Quaker Foods, this is a company that can serve you just about everything but dinner’s main course. (And how long till they acquire that capability?)

First of all, the very circumstances behind her ascension are interesting, in a sexual role-reversal kind of way. The driven, career-committed woman, who for some time has been breaking glass ceilings, takes over for a man (Steve Reinemund) who says he needs to spend more time with his family. Nooyi, by the way, has a husband and two daughters in Connecticut.

There have been a number of news stories on Nooyi since the August announcement that she is taking over the CEO title from Reinemund (how long till she gets his chairman title, as well?). Each has had some interesting little factoid of her life. I’ve pieced a number of them together and come up with some interesting things about Indra Nooyi:

  • Born and raised in India: Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi was born in Madras, India on October 28, 1955, received a bachelor's degree in chemistry, physics and math from Madras Christian College and a graduate degree in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. That is, before she went on to the Yale School of Management.
  • What’s in a name?: Her name refers to the king of gods in Hindu theology. She’s not the first female or Indian boss of a big American company, but she may be the first to be both. She qualifies as a minority and has attended PepsiCo events wearing a sari. And Pepsico is the biggest company (by market capitalization) with a female leader.
  • College rock star: She reportedly fronted an all-girl rock band in college in India — but I couldn’t find the name of band or even the name of college, and PepsiCo PR was tired of the question. She’s been said to still play electric guitar.
  • That middle-finger speech: Nooyi made headlines in May 2005 when she delivered a commencement address at Columbia University’s business school. Briefly, she compared the hand to the economic and political powers of the world, saving the middle finger for the U.S. She knew what she was doing: “If used inappropriately – just like the U.S. itself – the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble.” And trouble she got, although she declined to give the students a demonstration of that particular point in her speech. I think it was a witty and even profound analogy, but apparently some people have less-developed senses of humor.
  • Her hand in acquisitions: She played key roles in the acquisitions of at least Tropicana and Quaker. It will be interesting to see what deals she engineers in the future, domestically and around the world. In fact, as we went to press, PepsiCo announced the purchase of Izze Beverage Co., the Boulder, Colo., maker of all-natural, sparkling fruit juices.

Prior to joining PepsiCo, Nooyi was with The Boston Consulting Group and then held senior management positions at Motorola and Asea Brown Boveri (now ABB). With her background and talents, and especially her international outlook, she could have succeeded anywhere.

Forbes magazine quickly moved her up to the fourth most powerful woman in the world (in its Sept. 18 issue) behind Angela Merkel (Germany’s first female chancellor), Condoleezza Rice and Wu Yi (China’s vice premier). Pretty heady company.

We are fortunate she landed in the food industry and stuck around. There’s an interesting road ahead for PepsiCo.

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