Brenda Barnes, Sara Lee
Brenda Barnes led Sara Lee during period company was highly focused on its baking business.

CHICAGO — Brenda C. Barnes, who headed Sara Lee Corp. from 2005-10, died Jan. 17 at the age of 63, two days after suffering a stroke.

Ms. Barnes took the helm of Sara Lee during a time of transition at the company when management redoubled its commitment to the baking business.  During her tenure at Sara Lee, the company set a high standard for both innovation and marketing of baked foods.

A graduate of Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill., with a bachelor of arts degree in economics, Ms. Barnes held a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University in Chicago.

After starting her career at Wilson Sporting Goods in 1976, Ms. Barnes joined PepsiCo, Inc. in 1981 as a vice-president of marketing for Frito-Lay. Following a series of promotions, Ms. Barnes was elevated in 1996 to president and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola North America. She drew national attention a year later when she stepped down to spend more time with her children, who were the ages of 7, 8 and 10 at the time.

During the years that followed, Ms. Barnes served on a number of high-profile corporate boards, including New York Times Co.; Sears, Roebuck & Co.; and Avon Products, Inc.

She returned to the workforce full time in May 2004 when she was named president and chief operating officer of Sara Lee Corp. She was promoted to c.e.o. less than a year later and chairman of the board in October 2005. Sara Lee was in the midst of a major restructuring, divesting or spinning off a number of businesses to focus principally on its baking, packaged meat and coffee businesses. The company had taken a large step forward in baking three years earlier with the acquisition of The Earthgrains Co.

While she headed Sara Lee, the company’s new Sara Lee bread brand enjoyed rapid growth, fueled in part by innovative products such as Soft & Smooth bread, baked with a blend of enriched white flour and whole white wheat flour. Still, with the baking business pressured by low-carbohydrate dieting, Sara Lee struggled to achieve its financial targets.

Ms. Barnes resigned in August 2010, three months after suffering a severe stroke following a workout at a Chicago gym.

Ms. Barnes is survived by her three children.