Brenda Barnes, Pepsi Chief Who Spurred a Work-Life Debate, Dies at 63…

JAN. 20, 2017

Brenda Barnes in June 2009, when she was chairwoman and chief executive at Sara Lee. Credit Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Brenda Barnes, a two-time corporate chief executive whose decision to leave her top job at Pepsi-Cola sparked a national debate about women juggling career and family, died on Tuesday in Naperville, Ill. She was 63.

Her daughter, Erin Barnes, said the cause was complications of a stroke. The elder Ms. Barnes had had a stroke in 2010, after which she gave up her corporate career entirely.

Ms. Barnes had been chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America for a year and a half when she decided in 1997 to step down, saying that after two decades of grueling hours away from home she wanted to spend time with her three children, ages 10, 8 and 7.

She was 43 at the time and overseeing PepsiCo’s chief profit engine, based in Somers, N.Y., making her one of the most recognized women in corporate America. She resisted the entreaties of her peers to remain at the company, explaining that she had had her fill of days and nights away from her children.

“I hope people can look at my decision not as ‘women can’t do it’ but ‘for 22 years Brenda gave her all and did a lot of great things,’” Ms. Barnes told The Wall Street Journal at the time. “I don’t think there’s any man who doesn’t have the same struggle. Hopefully, one day corporate America can battle this.”

Her choice and the blunt language she used to describe the many burdens executive women had to shoulder elicited sharp reactions. Supporters hailed her decision to put family first. Detractors argued that her retreat from such a lofty post was a defeat for women fighting to be considered men’s equals in the boardroom.

The debate raged on television talk shows in the United States and in tabloid newspapers in London — much to the surprise of Ms. Barnes, who had never seen herself as a public figure pushing a cause.

A private woman by disposition (her nickname growing up outside Chicago was Bashful), Ms. Barnes weathered the public outcry and returned to Illinois with her family, settling in Naperville, about 33 miles west of Chicago.

She did not fully retire from corporate life, however. She became a sought-after company director, joining the boards of The New York Times (from 1998 to 2008), Avon, Lucasfilm, Sears and Staples.

In 2004, with her children in high school, Ms. Barnes accepted an offer to be a top executive at Sara Lee, the food conglomerate based in Chicago. She was soon named chairwoman and chief executive — becoming one of the few women to run a major American corporation — and given a mandate to revive Sara Lee’s sinking fortunes.

Ms. Barnes presided over a broad corporate restructuring, selling off noncore businesses and focusing on the company’s food brands. But the overhaul did not spur a profit recovery, and Sara Lee’s stock price remained stagnant for much of her time there.

Brenda Jo Czajka, a granddaughter of Polish immigrants, was born on Nov. 11, 1953, in Chicago and grew up in River Grove, Ill., a gritty suburb northwest of the city. Her father was a pipe fitter at International Harvester, the agricultural manufacturer; her mother stayed home to look after Brenda and her six sisters.

Ms. Barnes began working at 15, helping out at a neighborhood flower shop for $1.25 per hour.

She graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., in 1975 with a major in economics. After stints waiting on tables and sorting mail, she landed a job in the back office of Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago in 1976.

Wilson was part of the fast-growing Pepsi conglomerate at the time, and Ms. Barnes began to climb the corporate ladder rapidly while working toward her master’s degree in business at Loyola University Chicago, receiving it in 1980. She then moved to a senior job marketing salty snacks at Pepsi’s Frito-Lay division in Dallas.

Also in 1980, she married Randall Barnes, a top executive at the company. The marriage ended in divorce.

Besides her daughter, Ms. Barnes is survived by two sons, Jeff and Brian; her partner, Sal Barrutia; and five sisters, Linda Stebbins, Donna Williams, Rhonda Thompson, Laurna Czajka and Trina Baker. Another sister, Andra, died before her.

In more than 20 years with Pepsi, Ms. Barnes rose from one top job to another, moving from marketing positions to broader management roles until she was named to run the company’s giant beverage business in North America in 1996.

She gained a reputation for being adept at connecting with workers on the factory floor and for wooing her peers in the boardroom. But the hours were brutal. She often set her alarm for 3:30 a.m., she said, so she could catch up with work at home before rousing the children for school.

“There were two things in my life, kids and job,” Ms. Barnes told The Christian Science Monitor. “Exercise? Golf? Sleep? None of that.”

Correction: January 24, 2017
An obituary on Saturday about the former corporate chief executive Brenda Barnes, using information from her family, misstated the cause of her death. It was complications of a recent stroke, not of a stroke she suffered in 2010.