PHOENIX — Steven Williams, chief executive officer of PepsiCo Foods North America, spoke with his fellow snack makers about lessons learned during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that included taking care of his employees, ensuring that consumers had the snacks they wanted and the importance of transparency in business at SNAC International’s SNX forum, held March 27-29.
He also offered a piece of advice about setting priorities at home after he was asked about his favorite leadership book.
“I have business books that I like, leadership books that I love,” Mr. Williams said. “I’m going to give you guys one that isn’t really either that changed my life.”
The book is Chasing Daylight by Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO of the large accounting firm KPMG, who, after getting diagnosed with cancer, spent the 100 days he had left creating magical moments with his family. Mr. Williams, who said he spent much of his career burning the candle at both ends on the job, read the book every year for years to remind him about what’s important in life. He started taking trips with his children to ensure they shared plenty of magical moments.
“It changed the way I thought about spending time with my family, spending time with my associates, because you can’t get the time back,” he added.
Mr. Williams was less than a year into his tenure as CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America, which includes Frito-Lay North America and Quaker Foods North America, when the pandemic struck. The decisions he and his team made and priorities they set got the company through it.
“The last couple of years have been awful for so many reasons and on so many levels,” he said. “I think the thing that I’m most proud of and the thing that makes me so optimistic is the unbelievable spirit of our people on the front line of our company. We saw it across the industry.”
Navigating the pandemic meant taking care of employees first.
“Our heightened focus on the health and safety of our people, making sure regardless of what channel you’re working on, what business you’re in that you get paid a fair wage, I think was the savior,” he said. “Paying sick people to stay home, paying people who weren’t sick a whole bunch more to come to work. And it cost a lot of money. I don’t regret one cent. I’d do it again. It’s still paying dividends.”
The importance of being upfront with employees, customers and suppliers was a vital part of the puzzle as well, Mr. Williams said.
“I firmly believe, and I tell the team all the time, that transparency builds trust and trust adds speed. We started early on being transparent. We went out with advertising saying it’s about people. It was really to celebrate the front line and be transparent with our people and with others about what we stood for and that we were going to invest in our communities and invest in people. That level of transparency really helped us.”
Looking ahead, Mr. Williams, who called himself a tough-minded optimist, said the company will continue to make sure consumers have the snacks they need in the channels where they shop.
“We’re going to continue to stay hyper focused on delivering what consumers want,” he said. “We’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to customers. We’re continuing to expand and build out the portfolio.”