Irene Rosenfeld is as far from the traditional image of the all-powerful, all-conquering American boardroom tycoon that you can imagine. Yet, as chairman and chief executive officer of Kraft — the food company with revenues of $42bn and 98,000 employees — she is just one of 12 women CEOs running a top 500 US corporation. Forbes magazine has listed her among the ten most powerful women in the world for two years running.
Until recently, when Kraft launched an audacious £10.2bn bid for confectionary giant Cadbury, she was a relatively unknown in Britain. A smartly dressed, unassuming, purposeful 56-year-old, she is just the kind of woman you would expect to meet in the kiddush after synagogue.
There is very little of the power dressing, big shouldered, platinum blonde media image of a commanding boss about her. She is petite, dark haired, articulate and fearsomely analytical. A psychology graduate of Cornell University, she is also a Master of Business Administration and holds a PhD in marketing and statistics. When I met her recently on a fleeting visit to London, to attend a Merrill Lynch investors’ conference and meet shareholders, her grasp of marketing and financial detail quickly won me over despite my normal scepticism about foreign takeovers of British firms.
Rosenfeld rose to the top in the competitive American world of consumer goods because she actually believes in brands, in what they represent and in their intrinsic value. It is this which attracted her to Cadbury, resulting in the first substantial transatlantic bid of the post-credit crisis era. She said: “I do think that Cadbury has a stable of iconic brands, in fact that is the basis of our interest in the portfolio. We have shown ourselves not only willing but able to honour those brands, to make significant investment in them. That would be our intent here.”
Rosenfeld has some history to back her promises. In her quest to build a global confectionary giant to rival Nestlé and the recently merged Mars-Wrigley, she has been focused on taking traditional European brands such as Milka — the original creation of chocolatier Philippe Suchard — and modernising them.
She also created an almond bar, moved the brand into dark chocolate and came up with the idea of a re-closeable package. But at no point has she risked interfering with Milka’s main selling point of using milk from Swiss cows alone. “Milka is a good example of the recipe for success.”
The Kraft boss is never more enthusiastic than when talking about brands.
She is anxious to demonstrate that what Kraft have been able to do in continental Europe can be repeated in the UK. Under her authority, Kraft brought back the right to manufacture America’s famous Oreo cookies in the UK from United Biscuits. It has subsequently been able to bring the Oreo to the British market — something which its previous owner, the French firm Danone — had neither the resource nor inclination to do.
Rosenfeld’s climb to the top of the branded consumer-goods tree has been gradual and methodical rather than meteoric.
It all began in advertising at the New York agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. She then moved to America’s General Foods (now subsumed within Kraft), working on consumer research. Much of her career has been spent at Kraft, where she worked on the restructuring and turnaround of key operations in the US, Canada and Mexico. In 2001, Rosenfeld led the team which brought Kraft back to the public markets after it had been swallowed by tobacco giant Philip Morris. Her big break came in 2004 when she was recruited as chair and chief executive of PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay snacks offshoot, where she developed a whole range of healthier and wellness offerings. When she was poached back by Kraft in 2006, she could not resist.
Despite her unusual status as a woman at the head of an American conglomerate, Rosenfeld is not inclined to make much of advancement in a man’s world. She told the newspaper USA Today: “I was most encouraged when I moved into a CEO’s role that there wasn’t a lot of talk of the fact that we are women. There was a lot of talk of the fact that I and my colleagues were very competent business people.”
Rosenfeld’s Jewishness is an important part of her life. In 2005 she received the Master of Excellence award from the Centre for Jewish Living at Cornell University, her alma mater. During her speech she recalled the challenges of keeping kosher at Cornell while a student in the 1970s, how she had arranged for a Chanuchia to be placed next to the Christmas tree at General Foods headquarters and confessed a “lifelong love of Judaism which played a key role in my decision to keep a kosher home”.
She recently said: “It a good time to be a Jew in the food industry,” noting that there are more than 10 million customers which include Jews, Muslims, vegetarians and those who are lactose intolerant.
Cadbury, having at first rejected Rosenfeld’s advances as “unappealing” — both in terms of price and traditions — has now reluctantly conceded that a deal could make some “strategic sense” given the companies are strong in different growing markets: Kraft in China and Russia; and Cadbury in India and Mexico.
And if Rosenfeld pulls off the takeover of an emblematic Quaker founded company, it is not just the shareholders who will kvell.