Indra Nooyi is stepping down as chief executive officer of food and beverage giant PepsiCo Inc., handing the reins to a top lieutenant in a transition that will draw attention to the dearth of prominent female CEOs in corporate America.
Nooyi, 62, will leave the role in October and remain chairman until early 2019. Ramon Laguarta, 54, who has been a candidate to take over since a promotion last year to president, will be just the sixth CEO in the 53-year history of the company.
Nooyi, who is from India, is the first foreign-born CEO of Pepsi and the first woman to lead the chips-and-soda behemoth, whose revenue topped $63 billion last year. Her departure thins the ranks of female CEOs running S&P 500 companies and comes at a time when Pepsi’s North American beverage unit is stagnating amid a general decline in soda consumption. In 24 years at Pepsi, including 12 as chief executive, she has helped the Frito-Lay unit grow in a challenging industry and added healthier drinks and snacks to a portfolio that includes Cheetos and Mountain Dew.
Nooyi attended graduate school at Yale University and joined Purchase, New York-based Pepsi in 1994 as head of corporate strategy, rising to the CEO job in 2006. At the time only a handful of women ran major U.S. companies, and there are still fewer than 30 female CEOs in the S&P Nooyi faced down activist investor Nelson Peltz, repelling a bid to break up the company, and has guided Pepsi through a tricky stretch as shifts in how U.S. consumers eat and shop have bedeviled the largest food and beverage companies in the world.
“Indra’s legacy is that she’s figured out in a difficult environment that she could run a great company and drive great results and do good at the same time, while having long-lasting impact as a leader and global icon,” said Blair Effron, co-founder of Centerview Partners, an investment bank and advisory firm that’s worked with a range of consumer giants including Pepsi.
As she ponders her next chapter, Nooyi said she’ll possibly take a vacation, in addition to watching the New York Yankees baseball team, and, she quipped, “listen to some music, take a walk in the woods.” She hasn’t thought through potential next steps, but at a time when global progress on promoting more women to CEO positions appears to have stalled, she plans to help develop more talent to ensure that women are represented in the top ranks of corporate America.
“I think people like me, after we leave privileged CEO jobs, I don’t think we can go silent,” she said. “We have to keep fighting the good fight to develop women, to mentor them, to support them, so that we can get more highly qualified women — and there’s plenty of them — into the boardroom, into C suites and into the ultimate CEO job. My job is in fact just beginning once I leave PepsiCo because I can do things now that I was constrained to do when I was CEO of the company.”
Like many CEOs in a divisive political era, Nooyi has found herself a part of political discussions. She described herself at a conference as a supporter of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election but congratulated Donald Trump for his victory and was part of his short-lived business advisory council.
During an era when a businessman occupies the White House and corporate leaders including Mark Cuban and Howard Schultz are mentioned as potential presidential candidates, Nooyi said she doesn’t see a future for herself in politics.
“I think there are business leaders who like politics and there are business leaders who’d be lousy at politics,” she said. “I happen to be in the second group, and so I just want to make sure that whatever I can do behind the scenes to help any cause, I will — that makes sense for me. But politics no, not for me.”
“I’ve had a wonderful time being CEO, but at some point you sit back and say, look, it’s a responsible move to effect an orderly transition and to have somebody else take over the leadership of this company,” she said in an interview. “Being a CEO requires strong legs and I feel like I ran two legs of a relay race and I want somebody else with nice strong legs and sharp eyes to come and lead this company.”