The Most Influential Women in the Food and Beverage Industry

Feb. 5, 2014
The food and beverage industry may be more hospitable than others to women executives – who are not shy about getting their way once they reach the top.

There's probably no other manufacturing category whose ultimate purchasers are so heavily skewed toward the female demographic. So it should come as no surprise that two of the most powerful companies in this business are headed by women.

We asked our Editorial Advisory Board and others to suggest the most influential women in our industry. Several names surfaced, including academics, heads of some retailer companies and non-CEOs in the food industry. But we whittled that list down to the following seven, who prove that, especially in the food & beverage industry, no one can infuse heart and soul into a multibillion-dollar company like a woman.

Indra Nooyi, Chairman & CEO, PepsiCo Inc.

Did you Know... Indra Nooyi reportedly fronted an all-girl rock band while in college. 

If there's any legitimacy to seeing "a woman's touch" in running a major food & beverage company, it's exemplified by PepsiCo's Chairman and CEO Indra K. (Krishnamurthy) Nooyi. Her 2007 "Performance With Purpose" vision for the company, while promising steady financial success, was overwhelmingly about being a good corporate citizen the world over -- delivering healthier foods and beverages, respecting the environment and improving the communities and countries in which PepsiCo operates.

"A modern company can't see itself just as an agent for short-term gain. There's always a bigger picture," says Nooyi.

Nooyi became just the fifth CEO in PepsiCo's 41-year history in October 2006, 12 years after joining the company. Born and educated in India, Nooyi earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, physics and math from Madras Christian College. She moved to the U.S. in 1978 to earn a master’s degree from Yale University. She has a husband and two daughters in Connecticut.

Before joining PepsiCo in 1994, she had experiences at Boston Consulting Group, Motorola and Asea Brown Boveri (now ABB). Once at PepsiCo, she participated in several mergers and acquisitions that changed PepsiCo from a soda and restaurant company into what the company claims is the world’s largest convenient food and beverage company.

Named CFO in 2001, she helped spin off Pepsi’s restaurants into Yum! Brands and the company-owned bottling operations into Pepsi Bottling Group. She was instrumental in the $3.3 billion acquisition of Tropicana in 1998. And she led negotiations on the $13.8 billion PepsiCo acquisition of Quaker Oats in 2001.

Her reward was a seat on the board and the title of president, placing her in line to succeed CEO Steve Reinemund, who already was turning PepsiCo into an international food processor stressing health and wellness in new product development.

As president and CFO from 2000 to 2008, Nooyi was credited by analysts with fine-tuning the company's global strategy when both Pepsi and Coke faced a challenging environment in their core market for carbonated soft drinks, as more health-conscious consumers switched to juices and water.

One of her first goals was improving the nutritional value of PepsiCo’s portfolio. She recruited Mehmood Khan, a former Mayo Clinic endocrinologist, naming him chief scientific officer to head up R&D. Together they're executing a strategy that has been turning more of the company's items into “better for you” or even “good for you” products. In the most recent (2012) assessment of that goal, 20 percent of the company's revenues were from "nutritional" products.

In her "Performance With Purpose" vision statement, she called out three bullet points:

  • Transforming our portfolio to provide a wide range of foods and beverages, from treats to healthy eats, to sustain topline growth
  • Finding innovative ways to reduce our impact on the environment, which enables us to lower our costs at the same time
  • Providing a safe and inclusive workplace for our employees around the globe to attract and retain the best talent, and investing in the communities in which we do business to retain our license to operate.

One of her favorite communities to do business is her native India. As we reported in December, the company plans by 2020 to invest $5.5 billion in that country – a nation in need of investment but also an already great market for PepsiCo's products and a significant corporate beachhead.

The investment is expected to expand product development, manufacturing (doubling PepsiCo's production capacity), infrastructure (expanding in rural markets and deploying new technologies with retail customers) and agriculture (expanding PepsiCo's collaborative farming program provides farmers with access to good quality seeds, technical agronomic expertise, bank loans and crop insurance). "Most importantly, our investments will be aligned with India's interests," Nooyi says.

She points to several awards as proof the vision statement is working. In 2013, PepsiCo was ranked No. 1 on CoreBrands' list of the most respected companies. There were similar rankings for respectability from Fortune, Ethisphere and the Reputation Institute. PepsiCo also has received several global awards for water conservation, which has become another pet project of Nooyi and the company.

And how is she rewarded for these efforts? Last year, she had to fend off the public call for the split of the company by investor Nelson Peltz, whose investment firm Trian Fund Management owns 12 million shares of PepsiCo. Apparently PepsiCo's $65 billion in sales and $6 billion in profit weren't good enough to make Peltz an even wealthier man. He called PepsiCo's namesake beverage business a dog.

We're not aware of any corporate responsibility report from Trian Fund. Perhaps Peltz was after the $600 million PepsiCo and its foundation has "wasted" since 2005 in donations to nonprofit agencies working to improve environmental, educational, civic, arts and health & human services projects.

Did you Know...Irene Rosenfeld worked 30 years at the essentially same company … which changed names from General Foods to Kraft to Mondelez.

Irene Rosenfeld, Chairman & CEO, Mondelez International

Irene Rosenfeld is a prime example that sometimes you need to leave your company before you can lead your company. She has about 30 years with Kraft Foods, a predecessor and a semi-successor, except for a two-year dalliance with PepsiCo. Now, of course, she is chairman and CEO of the barely-a-year-old Mondelez International.

Her online bio says she holds a Ph.D. in marketing and statistics, a master of science in business, and a bachelor degree in psychology from Cornell University. After a brief stint at a New York advertising agency, Rosenfeld joined General Foods in 1981 in consumer research. As she moved up in the company, it became a roller coaster of acquisitions, mergers and spinoffs that few chief executives (mercifully) get to experience. For some, she participated in or was in charge; for others she was just a passenger.

First came the acquisition of General Foods by cigarette-maker Philip Morris Cos. in late 1985 – at the time, the largest non-oil acquisition. In December 1988, Philip Morris acquired Kraft Inc., and two years later, combined the two companies as Kraft General Foods. In 2000, Philip Morris acquired Nabisco and merged it with Kraft Foods Inc.

She is credited with leading the successful integration of the Nabisco acquisition, and the restructuring and turnaround of a number of key businesses. She served on the senior team that launched Kraft's initial public offering of stock (while still majority-owned by Phillip Morris) in 2001. Then, in 2004, she left to become chairman/CEO of Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo.

She must have enjoyed all those mega mergers and acquisitions, because as soon as she returned to Kraft in 2006 as CEO (adding the chairman's title nine months later) she directed the spinoff of Kraft from Phillip Morris. As an independent company, Kraft in 2010 pulled off one of the biggest food acquisitions, paying $18.5 billion for U.K.-based Cadbury plc. With Nabisco long under Kraft's belt, the combination made Kraft Foods a global powerhouse in snacks and confectionery – higher growth categories than Kraft's traditional grocery products.

It wasn't long before Rosenfeld engineered another blockbuster, the late-2012 split of Kraft into Kraft Foods Group, a mostly North American grocery products company, and Mondelez International, a mostly global snack and candy company. Rosenfeld went with Mondelez as chairman and CEO.

And while Mondelez took off like a rocket, sales actually declined in the second and third quarters of 2013 (although profits stayed strong). So there's no taking her hands off the steering wheel just yet.

Did you Know...Denise Morrison is one of four sisters, all of whom have successful business careers. Sister Maggie Wilderotter is chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications.

Denise Morrison, Campbell Soup Co.

In the previous decade, Campbell Soup Co. staked a very big claim on reducing sodium in its soups and juices. What seemed like a good bet backfired, and Douglas Conant, who had achieved his own turnaround at the company, handed over the reins to Denise Morrison. Who immediately shifted gears.

"Consumers today crave novelty, bolder flavors and foods that help them feel alive, engaged and connected," Morrison told financial analysts shortly after her ascension. "No company is connected to consumers' lives quite like Campbell, and we are well positioned to respond to the opportunities that the changing consumer landscape will present over the next decade."

Novel and bolder products have taken shape in the form of Slow Kettle Style soups in plastic tub packaging, Campbell’s Go soups (in flavors like Coconut Curry, Creamy Red Pepper With Smoked Gouda and Spicy Chorizo With Pulled Chicken and Black Beans) and Skillet Sauces launched in innovative pouches.

Morrison, who has a bachelor's degree in economics and psychology from Boston College, enjoyed a quick climb up the adder at Campbell, reaching the top in just eight years – although she has more than 30 years in the food industry. She began her career at Procter & Gamble Co. and held senior leadership roles at Nabisco, Nestle, PepsiCo and Kraft.

Morrison joined Campbell in 2003 as president of global sales and chief customer officer, then became president of Campbell USA, then a senior corporate vice president and president of the key North America soup, sauces and beverages business. She was named executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2010 and also was appointed a board director. In 2011 she became Campbell's 12th leader and first female chief in its 144-year history.

It was apparent she had a dual charge: re-establishing the company's leadership in its traditional markets and expanding its reach into new, higher-growth areas. "We are focused on rebuilding relationships with our existing consumers and establishing connections to new ones," she said at the time of her promotion. "Simply put, our mission is to reinvent our products and our company for a new era."

And reinvent, she did. In addition to putting some of the salt (and flavor) back in its iconic red label soups and launching the Go soups and Skillet Sauces, she made acquisitions that took Campbell into new territory. Bolthouse Farms, acquired in 2012, moved the company into super-premium beverages as well as fresh produce. In 2013 the company moved into baby and toddler foods by buying Plum Organics. Also that year, Campbell juggled its overseas portfolio, selling its European simple meals business but acquiring Kelsen Group, a producer of baked snacks, including the Kjeldsens and Royal Dansk brands of cookies.

"Our plan for stabilizing and rebuilding the profitability of our Soup and Simple Meals business in North America is working," she said last February at the Consumer Analysts Group of New York meeting. She also noted progress in international expansion, growth in healthy beverages and baked snacks and expansion into higher-growth categories and geographies.

Just last month, the Food Marketing Institute gave Morrison its Albers Industry Relations Award for her contributions to the food retail supply chain. The award celebrates "excellence in trading partner relations … and the betterment of the food chain through holistic contributions and innovative products.”

Nancy Reagan's cause was the war on drugs; Michelle Obama's is a war on junk food.

Michelle Obama, First Lady

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was a vocal spokesperson for the “War on Drugs” during her husband's administration in the 1980s. Some might argue that the current first lady, Michelle Obama, will be remembered for a war on cookies.

Obama's Let's Move! campaign, officially launched in 2010, is more accurately a fight against obesity -- cookies aren't really the target.

Obama, who just turned 50 last month, will of course be remembered as an iconic figure. She is a Harvard Law graduate who was working in the Chicago planning department when she married Barack Obama, who would become the first black president of the U.S. While the president had grown up in the Pacific islands, Michelle was a native Chicagoan, the first of two children of a water department employee-father and a stay-at-home mother.

By the way, she once was on the board of directors of Chicago-area private label powerhouse TreeHouse Foods.

Mrs. Obama is now raising two daughters in Washington, D.C., while working on the Let's Move! effort. Her cause most certainly reflects an awareness that obesity is a serious problem. The food industry might be pleased that the initiative recognizes the need for exercise and better nutrition. It has been clear for the last three years or more that Michelle Obama is no less committed to this cause than Nancy Reagan was to hers.

“This isn’t just a policy issue for me,” she has been quoted as saying. “This is a passion. This is my mission. I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition.”

Largely because of Let's Move! and the spotlight shone on obesity late in the previous decade, more than 40 of the nation’s largest retailers, non-profit organizations, food and beverage manufacturers and trade associations launched the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, with the 16 food & beverage processors promising to remove 1.5 trillion calories from American food by 2015. Instead, they exceeded the goal, and years ahead of schedule. An independent organization found those companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the U.S. in 2012 than they did in 2007 (established as the baseline year), thus exceeding even their 2015 pledge by more than 400 percent.

In a February 2013 Wall Street Journal op-ed, the First Lady described one of the obstacles that has kept healthier foods from getting onto the plates of children. But she also indicated that it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

“For years, the conventional wisdom said that healthy products simply didn’t sell – that the demand wasn’t there, that higher profits were found elsewhere, so it just wasn’t worth the investment. Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses we are proving the conventional wisdom wrong.”

That same day, the Mrs. Obama visited a Walmart Neighborhood Store in Springfield, Mo., to help the world's largest grocer unveil its “Great for You” icon system designed to help consumers make healthier choices. In some circles the First Lady's program has been criticized for being too cozy with industry, but it is clear from her comments in the Journal that she believes that cooperation without confrontation is bringing results.

“In Mississippi, obesity rates have dropped by 13 percent for elementary school-aged kids. States like California, and cities like New York and Philadelphia, have also seen measurable declines in childhood obesity. So it's clear that we are moving in the right direction. But we also know that the problem is nowhere near being solved. We need every business in America to dig deeper, get more creative, and find new ways to generate revenue by giving American families better information and healthier choices.”

Margaret Hamburg, FDA Commissioner

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wields tremendous regulatory power over food and pharmaceutical companies, and its policies have a broad effect on how food is processed and packaged.

In 2009, Margaret Hamburg, became the 21st commissioner of FDA, making her one of the most influential figures affecting the nation's food & beverage industry. Hamburg, a 58-year-old graduate of Harvard Medical School, responded to questions for this story, noting that the agency and food processors have shared goals and priorities.

“This is a time when we must work closely together to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply,” she said in a written response. “For example, both America’s food industry and the FDA have faced significant challenges over the last decade as a result of the world’s increasingly globalized food system. In fact, few factors will have a greater impact on the industry in the years ahead. Currently, imported food accounts for about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply.”

It's a smaller world, to be sure, and many U.S. food companies are involved in a more globalized food industry.

One of the most all-encompassing food regulations ever written is being rolled out under Hamburg's watch. The Food Safety Modernization Act, which Hamburg calls the “most sweeping reform to its food safety system in 70 years,” codifies and specifies a series of initiatives that have been adopted by the food industry over several decades. Hamburg says its phased implementation is coming along nicely.

“I have been continually impressed with the public’s interest in these issues and the commitment demonstrated by so many to get these rules right,” Hamburg says. “I personally value the input and feedback we have received from the public, and I am confident that, once FSMA is fully implemented, we can expect fewer food-borne illnesses and an even safer food supply in this country.”

Born in Chicago but raised in California, Hamburg says her physician parents inspired her own accomplishments. Before being appointed to steer the FDA, her most notable career achievement took place during her tenure as head of  New York City's health department from 1991-1997, when Hamburg helped stem a rise in tuberculosis through a policy of effective drug administration. In five years, the TB rate for the city fell by 86 percent for the most resistant strains.

So, how does Hamburg view the efforts of food processors to produce safe and nutritious food? For one, as the agency considers a ban on partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats, she credits industry efforts for a dramatic reduction in consumption of trans fats — from 4.6g per day in 2003 to about 1g per day in 2012.

“It is clear that food and beverage makers are increasingly focused on the positive role they can play, and in many instances, have provided important leadership to develop and advance strategies to improve the nutritional composition of the foods they provide and to improve food safety,” Hamburg says. “Of course, there is more to be done, and the FDA is eager to work with industry as partners to better serve the health of the public.

"I am grateful for the public and industry engagement on this critical public health issue," she concludes, "and I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in 2014."

Kim Ruiz Beck and Rachel Cullen, Ruiz Foods

Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif., will mark its 50th anniversary this year. The family-owned company is a leader in Mexican-style frozen foods, selling burritos, snacks and entrees under the El Monterey brand in a variety of retail and food service channels. The executives filling the top managerial seats in the company are two women -- Chairman Kim Ruiz Beck and President/CEO Rachel Cullen.

Beck grew up in the family business that was started by her father and grandfather. She has a master's degree in administrative leadership from Fresno Pacific University and an undergraduate degree in marketing from California State University, Fresno.

Her affiliation with the family business began at a very early age when she held a series of marketing and sales positions. More recent leadership roles have included vice president of marketing and sales, then executive vice president of product development and then vice chairman.

Beck says that in her experience, the food business has been a bastion of gender equality.

“I’ve always thought the food industry has been hospitable — in fact, welcoming to women,” she reflects. “Maybe it’s because I was born into it, I don’t know, but even in the early days when I would accompany my dad or one of our sales executives on a call, I felt I was valued and respected for my knowledge and expertise.”

She notes that 80 percent of Ruiz Foods' employees are women. Beck also believes that companies with women in top positions benefit from the female perspective.

“As a mom involved in the food business, I always like looking at what we do from the perspective of my three boys,” she says. “It’s great because I never have to guess what they might enjoy.  I can observe in real situations — before baseball practice, at the dinner table, what they stock in their college refrigerator for snacks, etc. When they were young, I just watched what they put on their plate, listened to their comments and made notes as to what they asked me to bring back from the grocery store when I went shopping.  The input always proves valuable.”

Cullen came to the company in 2012 after holding a series of key executive positions with several major food manufacturers including Kraft Foods and Dean Foods. She holds a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.

Cullen says she too has found a level playing field among men and women in the food business.

“I have always found that acceptance and success in the food industry is based on abilities and performance, not gender,” she says. “I have also found the food industry a great personal source for finding mentors who are very willing to their share experiences and insights.”

Beck says that as she has gained experience in the business, she has become more aware of other famale food executives, in part due to her involvement in industry associations.

“As I became more involved in the industry, I am amazed how many more women have also become involved," she says. “I attend the Networking for Women conference and the Women’s Foodservice Forum each year and am very impressed by the visibility and mentoring available for successful women in the food industry.”

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