Stephen W. Sanger, General Mills

Stephen W. Sanger, say his friends, is your typical middle-aged sports guy: a respectable tennis player, a loyal college basketball fan, and a bad golfer. So when the General Mills (GIS) CEO sought to improve productivity a while back, he sent technicians to watch the pit crews during a NASCAR race. That inspired the techies, who then figured out how to reduce the time it takes to switch a plant line from five hours to 20 minutes.

That competitive spirit works. Since taking over as CEO in 1995, Sanger has made price hikes stick on such brands as Wheaties and Trix and pushed General Mills Inc. past rival Kellogg Co. (K) to lead the U.S. cereal market. And when General Mills closes on its deal to buy Pillsbury Co. (DEO) in early 2001, it will become the world's fifth-largest food company.

That's not a bad record for a former pop music concert promoter. Sanger will often recite song lyrics at meetings, even stopping to go online to find lines he has forgotten. It's corny, but sweet. Says Duane Benson, who runs the Minnesota Business Partnership, "He's like a Doris Day of guys." And these days, he has General Mills humming.

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