Powerful people and their role in the food industry

by Morton Sosland
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Since Irene Rosenfeld, Indra Nooyi and Patricia Woertz have again been ranked by Fortune magazine as the top three of “The 50 Most Powerful Women,” the food industry has reason for pride that three of its companies are headed by such women. This line-up may tempt someone to say that it’s only natural for women to be successful chief executives of food companies, as these three certainly are. But such an assertion is countered by there being nothing about their stellar standing that may be attributed to gender or that the food business is best managed by a female. In the Fortune listing of powerful women, it’s necessary to go to number 17 before another food company executive appears.

In this year’s listing, the magazine’s editors chose to raise Ms. Rosenfeld to first in recognition of the power she displayed in moving to split Kraft Foods Inc. into two companies. Her role in the future of the two, one in North America and the other in snacks around the world, has not been disclosed, but even without that, it’s easy to appreciate the strength it took to divide the business as well as the great influence that decision will have on the structure of the food business.

Ms. Nooyi, moving from first to second place, is singled out for her direction of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay to expanding attention to nutrition. This is a huge shift for a business that historically built its dominance in snacks by focusing on taste and innovation. The magazine cites one minus for Ms. Nooyi in the apparent loss of Pepsi soft drink market share to Coca-Cola Co.

For Ms. Woertz, emphasis is on her expanding the global reach of Archer Daniels Midland Co. in developing countries, particularly citing investments in Brazil and Paraguay in soybean refining and biodiesel production. In the brief commentary, nothing is said about Ms. Woertz, or the other two leaders, having to cope with record-setting volatility in the basic grain and ingredient markets that are central to their businesses’ success. That did and does require power.

The number 17 noted is Jan Fields, who heads operations of McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. restaurants. Beyond her are only two other women in food — Denise Morrison, president and c.e.o. of Campbell Soup Co., as No. 21, and Ilene Gordon, chairman, president and c.e.o. of Corn Products International, Inc., No. 42. Fortune also presents a listing of “The International Power 50,” made up of women working outside of North America. Not a single one of these 50 is

engaged in food.

Addressing the expanding power of women calls to mind a man whose death early last month prompted an outpouring of tributes unlike anything seen in years. The reference is to Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc., who died in October at 56. While Mr. Jobs never had a business involvement with food, this industry, like every other business, was dramatically impacted by the products he envisioned and brought to reality. Many of the remarkable statements made about his contributions referred to his skills as an innovator and as a corporate leader. All of these have relevance to how the food business itself ought to be run. His tremendous influence on the evolution and modern-day course of American culture, commerce and technology may not be overstated.

Also known for his insistence on privacy, Mr. Job’s death has revealed some odd eating habits. These were possibly accentuated by his search to find a diet as a way of halting the pancreatic cancer he faced and which caused his death. His daughter has told of his vegetarian preferences. “With him,” she wrote, “one ate a variety of salads.” While that might have won hurrahs from sectors of the food industry, it is likely that a large part of the industry, while being thankful for his Apple innovations, is grateful he did not promote his eating like he did his products.

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