CEO chose fam­ily over cor­po­rate life

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­post.com

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.”

DANIEL ACKER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

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.”

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