CEO chose family over corporate life
At 43, Brenda Barnes had a prized job as chief executive at Pepsi-Cola, one of the most recognizable beverage brands in the world and a company with annual sales of more than $7 billion. She had a supportive husband and three children, ages 10, 8 and 7, whom she was raising with the help of a much-loved live-in nanny. From the outside, she might have been seen to “have it all” — that ideal, perhaps idealized equilibrium of professional achievement and personal happiness.
But after 22 years of long hours in the office, punishing travel and unremitting responsibility, Ms. Barnes decided in 1997 that what she’d had was enough. She wished to receive no special allowances from her company — no “slack,” she said. So after about a year at the helm of Pepsi-Cola North America, she announced that she was stepping down to spend more time with her family.
“That’s the code for: Did she really get fired?” she quipped to the New York Times. “But this time, it’s really the reason.”
As one of the highest-ranking women in American business, Ms. Barnes, who died Jan. 17 at 63 after a stroke, made a decision that thrust her to the center of national soul-searching over whether women can “have it all.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Pepsi dispatched retired chairman Donald Kendall to try to persuade her to remain in her post at the company’s Purchase, N.Y., headquarters. Ms. Barnes was more moved by an observation from one of her children — that she should keep working only if she could “promise to be at home for all our birthdays.”
Some women lamented, even lambasted Ms. Barnes’s decision to squander a hard-fought professional opportunity at a time when many women were pushing to establish workplace equality in corporate culture. Other observers saw her experience as proof that women could not hope to balance work and home life. Ms. Barnes called that perspective misguided.
“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,’ ” she told the Journal when she left Pepsi. “I don’t think there’s any man who doesn’t have the same struggle. Hopefully, one day corporate America can battle this.”
After leaving Pepsi, Ms. Barnes moved her family from the New York area to the Chicago suburbs, where she grew up. She held numerous board appointments. But she treated child-rearing and homemaking as her primary responsibilities.
“The whole issue boils down to time,” she told NPR in 1997, explaining the pull she felt to her children at that period in their lives. “I was faced with many times when I might not be at a school event, or I wouldn’t be there at a special moment . . . . That casual time to interact with your family is what I was finding that I was missing too much.”
In 2004, as her children approached college, Ms. Barnes went to work at Sara Lee, where she became chief executive the next year and where her compensation reached a reported $11.5 million.
The company was already suffering declining returns when Ms. Barnes signed on. She directed the sale of Sara Lee’s apparel line and some other brands so the company could focus principally on food products, but recovery proved challenging.
In 2010, while exercising at a gym, Ms. Barnes suffered a stroke that forced her to step down. By all accounts, she approached her rehabilitation with the same vigor she brought to the boardroom. “I hate not being able to do it all,” she told Fortune magazine in 2012.
Brenda Jo Czajka, a granddaughter of Polish immigrants and one of seven daughters, was born in Chicago on Nov. 11, 1953, and grew up in nearby River Grove, Ill. Her father was a pipe fitter, and her mother was a homemaker.
Ms. Barnes received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., in 1975 and, three years later, a master’s degree in business administration from Loyola University Chicago.
Early on at Pepsi, she did marketing work in the Frito-Lay snack-food division. Interviewed by NBC News, she remembered with frustration the comments she received after her children were born.
“Boy, it’s so great now that you have children that you’re going home earlier,” she said colleagues remarked. “I feel like saying, ‘Have you been with me for the last 24 hours? Do you know what I’ve been doing, where I’ve been doing it?’ If I work at my kitchen table at 3 o’clock in the morning, who cares? If I do it late at night, who cares? That’s flexibility. It doesn’t mean you work less.”
At Sara Lee, Ms. Barnes developed “returnships” for women seeking to come back to corporate work after taking time off to care for their children.
Her marriage to Randy Barnes ended in divorce. Survivors include her partner of eight years, Sal Barrutia of St. Charles, Ill.; five sisters; and three children from her marriage, Erin Barnes of Seattle, Jeff Barnes of San Francisco and Brian Barnes of Chicago.
Ms. Barnes died at a hospital in Naperville, Ill. Her daughter confirmed the death.
“I’m not leaving because they need more of me,” Ms. Barnes told the Times about her children when she stopped working, “but because I need more of them.”
Brenda Barnes, who was at the helm of Pepsi-Cola North America, stepped down during a national debate over whether women can “have it all.”