Can you imagine a world without Oreo cookies? Anyone who has taken one and dipped it into a glass of milk before popping it into his or her mouth to savor the flavor would shudder at the thought of such a scenario.
But when Irene Rosenfeld returned to Kraft Foods in 2006, she found that the company was on verge of delisting the Oreo brand in China.
“We took a U.S. product and jammed it down the throats of the Chinese consumer,” Rosenfeld says. “We were losing money, and it was a very unattractive proposition. We had a $60 million factory in Beijing, which was sitting empty because sales had not materialized. So we were about to delist the product.”
Rosenfeld and her team at Kraft decided to reach out to people in China before taking such a drastic move. They asked what it would take to make the Oreo brand a success in their country.
“They very quickly told us that the product was too big and too sweet for the Chinese consumer,” Rosenfeld says. “When we allowed our local managers to redesign our product for the local taste and local customs, we had a phenomenal turnaround.”
The Chinese Oreo is smaller and less sweet and actually comes in a green tea flavor. It’s not at all what American consumers want when they open their package of Oreos, but different cultures have different tastes. Rosenfeld knew in that case she needed to adapt to earn the business of the Chinese consumers.
The effort has paid off thanks in part to China’s own Yao Ming, a former star basketball player in the United States.
“Who is the best symbol in China but Yao Ming?” Rosenfeld says. “He’s our spokesman, and we actually go to the local guy. It has been a phenomenal business in China with almost $800 million of the $2 billion business from Oreo worldwide,”
The willingness to adapt played a large part in the move completed last fall to split Kraft into two groups. Kraft Foods Group now holds the company’s North American grocery business, which is led by iconic brands such as Oscar Mayer and Maxwell House.
Kraft Foods Inc. is now Mondelez International Inc. and will focus on high-growth global snacks.
“Our dream for this company is to create delicious moments of joy,” says Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO for Mondelez. “The opportunity for us is to create a $36 billion start-up. It’s an opportunity to take an incredible roster of brands that are household names, brands like Oreo, Ritz, Chips Ahoy, Trident and Cadbury, and put those together.”
Getting to the market fast
Rosenfeld does not go so far as to say that the grocery side of the business was holding back snacks. But the two sides did require a different approach, and that created a challenge for leadership.
“North American grocery needs to be managed for cash and for margin,” Rosenfeld says. “There is a big focus there on maintaining the moderate growth but making sure it’s a very cost-focused company.
“Our global snacks business is all about growth. So the focus is on global platforms for each of our brands. The focus is on capabilities and the supply chain and sales, which will drive these products more rapidly around the world.
“The opportunity for us to be able to scale up very quickly if we are properly structured and have the proper communication from one part of the world to another is the main idea for our new company.”
The ability to make smart acquisitions of new brands and make strong connections in emerging markets will go a long way toward determining the ultimate success of Mondelez.
“The rate of consumption in the emerging markets is a fraction of what we see in developed markets,” Rosenfeld says. “So that whole investment thesis behind Mondelez is this idea of a growth company because of our geographic footprint and our category participation. It’s really depending on explosive growth, and we’re growing at a double-digit rate in these emerging parts.”
Focusing on health
It’s hard to talk about snacks and the love that people have of them without talking about obesity. Rosenfeld says the problem of people being overweight and out of shape is big in the United States, but it’s also a concern in other parts of the world.
“It’s every bit as challenging in India, and it’s on its way to markets like China,” Rosenfeld says. “It’s an issue we take quite seriously, and we look to address it in a couple of ways.”
The first part is looking at calorie intake. Efforts are ongoing to formulate products in a way that they taste good but can be enjoyed without guilt or risk to your future health and well-being.
“We continue to focus on taking things out like calories and sodium and sugar and replacing them in our products, as well as increasing the level of fiber,” Rosenfeld says. “We’re not pretending chocolate is going to be something other than it is.
“What we’re doing with products like that is to make sure the consumer has portion control. We’re making more of our candy bars scored so you can break off a piece at a time. We have resealable packaging. We’re doing a lot more single-serve products, which is good for price value and consumption.”
As for burning calories, Rosenfeld says she and her company will always do what they can to promote exercise and an active lifestyle for consumers young and old.
“We have been working very actively in partnership with organizations like KaBOOM! and with playgrounds in inner cities in this country and in programs like Healthy Schools in the U.K.,” Rosenfeld says. “We’re helping to educate children about good nutrition and the value of exercise.”
The key to being successful in providing nutritional foods to consumers, whether it be children, college students, young professionals or senior citizens, is easy to understand. But it’s often a lot more difficult to achieve in actual practice.
“Healthier products like Triscuit and Wheat Thins are growing at twice the rate as the base products,” Rosenfeld says. “There’s a clear business opportunity as well as the social responsibility. It’s not a tough sell, but what’s hard is to make sure these products taste delicious. Because at the end of the day, if it doesn’t taste good, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”
Staying in touch
From the outside, it seems like it would be a nearly impossible task to manage 100,000 employees. And while Rosenfeld has a proven track record of effective leadership and is regularly named one of the most influential leaders in the world, she agrees that managing that many people is impossible.
“The fact is I can’t manage 100,000 employees,” Rosenfeld says. “What I can do is inspire as many of the leaders of the company, then, in turn, to inspire their teams. It’s a cascading process.
“The single biggest role I play is in communication and talking about where we are going, why we are going there and what it is I need the organization to do. Then I really need the leaders to grab that and translate that mess into what it means for their folks on the ground.”
Rosenfeld spends about two-thirds of her time on the road meeting with employees and assessing whether they have what they need to succeed.
“I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about talent,” Rosenfeld says. “I look at our key roles, and I want to make sure they are operated by our top talent and that we have good career paths for those individuals as well as good succession plans behind them.”
The name change from Kraft to Mondelez has required a restating of what it means to work for this new organization.
“A lot of the work we’re doing right now is creating an employee value proposition and being explicit about what Mondelez can offer you as the prospective employee that you might not get elsewhere,” Rosenfeld says.
Empowering women to grow and succeed is another area of focus for Rosenfeld. Half of her management team is female and a third of her board is women.
“For many companies, they can legitimately say they have no one in the pipeline because they didn’t focus on that,” Rosenfeld says. “It’s a multilayered process, and it has to be a commitment from the top. I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made and we continue to talk with peers about what sort of actions we’ve taken that have contributed to our success.”
If you ask Rosenfeld for advice on how to succeed in life and in work, she says to just be yourself.
“If you’re not comfortable in the environment that you’re in, get out of it and do something else,” Rosenfeld says. “We all work too hard at what we do to not be comfortable and to feel like we have to be somebody that we’re not.”
The Rosenfeld File
Name: Irene Rosenfeld
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Mondelez International Inc.
Education and memberships: Rosenfeld holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, an MBA and a doctorate in marketing, all from Cornell University. She is active in a number of industry and community organizations including The Economic Club of Chicago. She also serves on the Grocery Manufacturers Association board of directors and Cornell’s board of trustees.
The path to Mondelez: She began her career in consumer research, later joining General Foods, which itself became part of Kraft Foods. Rosenfeld led the restructuring and turnaround of key businesses in the United States, Canada and Mexico. She served on the team that spearheaded the company’s IPO in 2001, and successfully integrated the Nabisco, LU and Cadbury businesses.
Rosenfeld took a short break from Kraft Foods in 2004, serving for two years as chairman and CEO of Frito-Lay. While there, she accelerated growth in better-for-you products and health and wellness offerings.
She returned to Kraft Foods, the predecessor to Mondelez International Inc., in June 2006 as CEO and became chairman in March 2007, following Kraft’s spinoff from Altria Group.