At PepsiCo Inc. (PEP), Indra Nooyi has long been known for two things: a prescient business sense and an irreverent personal style. The combination became obvious soon after she joined the company as its chief strategist 13 years ago. She pushed Chief Executive Roger Enrico to spin off Taco Bell (YUM), Pizza Hut (YUM), and KFC (YUM) in 1997 because she didn't feel PepsiCo could add enough value to the fast food business. She later was instrumental in the purchase of Tropicana, the spinoff of Pepsi's bottling business, and the $13 billion merger with Quaker Oats Co. Each of these moves has paid off.
All the while, Nooyi has proved comfortable enough with her leadership presence to patrol the office barefoot at times and even sing in the halls, perhaps a holdover from her teen days in an all-girl rock band in her hometown of Chennai, India. She gave Enrico a karaoke machine before he left in 2001 and hired a live "Jam-eoke" band to help senior executives belt out tunes at a management conference earlier this year.
"Indra can drive as deep and hard as anyone I've ever met," Enrico says, "but she can do it with a sense of heart and fun."
Nooyi learned early on to embrace rather than hide her differences in the corporate world. She headed to the U.S. after working for a time in India, long fascinated by the opportunities and culture of America (pal Henry Kissinger notes that Nooyi is "a wild New York Yankees fan," recalling a visit with her to Prague, where "she would pull out her cell phone every 20 minutes to check the score"). Coming out of Yale in 1980 with a master's in public and private management, Nooyi wore a sari to an interview at Boston Consulting Group and was offered the job. She later held corporate strategy posts at Motorola Inc. (MOT) and what is now ABB Group (ABB). What drew her to PepsiCo was the chance to make a difference in a company that was struggling.
Over the past decade, she says, "PepsiCo has transformed itself to become among the best food companies and one of the better corporations in the world." Since 2000, when she became chief financial officer, the company's annual revenues have risen 72%, while net profit more than doubled, to $5.6 billion last year. As chairman and CEO, Nooyi promotes the concept of "performance with purpose," trying to make PepsiCo a ground-breaker in areas like selling healthy food and diversifying its workforce.
The slogan may sound like the kind of marketing ploy that's in vogue these days, especially coming from a company that's best known for making soda and potato chips. But Nooyi says that by emphasizing baked whole-grain snacks and vitamin-enhanced water, Pepsi can lead the industry's push toward better nutrition. That, she argues, would benefit not just consumers, but investors, too.
By Diane Brady