Brenda C. Barnes Biography

Chief Executive Officer of Sara Lee

Brenda C. Barnes

Born c. 1955; married Randall Barnes (a business executive); children: Jeff, Erin, Brian. Education: Augustana College, bachelor's degree, 1975; Loyola University, M.B.A., 1978.

Addresses: Office —c/o Sara Lee Corp., Three First National Plaza, Chicago, IL 60602; 3500 Lacey Rd., Downers Grove, IL 60515.


Joined PepsiCo., Inc., as business manager for Wilson Sporting Goods, 1976; became vice president of marketing for Frito-Lay, 1981; named the vice president of national sales and marketing at Pepsi, 1988; named president of Pepsi-Cola South, 1992; promoted to chief operating officer at Pepsi-Cola Company, 1993; named president and chief executive officer of Pepsi Cola North America, 1996; left Pepsi, 1997; served as interim president at Starwood Hotels and Resorts, 1999–2000; worked as adjunct professor at Kellogg Graduate School of Business and North Central College, 2002; joined Sara Lee Corp. as president and chief operating officer, 2004, promoted to president and chief executive officer, then chairman and chief executive officer, both 2005.

Member: board, Avon, 1994; board, Sears, Roebuck & Company; board, New York Times Company, 1998; board, Staples, Inc.; board, Sara Lee.

Awards: Women's Achievement Award, New York City YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association).


In the late 1990s, Brenda Barnes shocked the business world by leaving her high-profile position as the highest-ranking female executive at Pepsi Co. to devote her time and attention to her family. While she occasionally worked over the next few years, it was not until 2004 that she whole-heartedly returned to the corporate world. At that time, she became an executive at Sara Lee Corporation, and soon launched a re-structuring of the company.

Born around 1955, Barnes was raised in Chicago, the daughter of a father who worked as a maintenance man at International Harvester and the granddaughter of Polish immigrants. She and her six siblings gained strong values from their parents, including the value of humbleness. Barnes told Shelley Donald Coolidge of the Christian Science Monitor , "My parents gave me a strong work ethic and the ability to listen to people and value what they have to say and do. That base foundation of values helped me tremendously."

She earned her undergraduate degree in business and economics from Rockford, Illinois' Augustana College in 1975. With no job prospects, she spent the next year working variously as a waitress, post office mail sorter, and clothing salesperson. Barnes began her professional career at PepsiCo, Inc. in 1976, when she was hired as a business manager for Wilson Sporting Goods, which was then a division of Pepsi. While Barnes experienced gender discrimination at the male-dominated company, she was determined to do her job and reach her goal of becoming head of sales. Barnes also entered Loyola University, from which she graduated with her M.B.A. in 1978.

Barnes remained with Wilson Sporting Goods until 1981, when she moved to another PepsiCo company, Frito-Lay. There, she served as vice president of marketing. In 1984, Barnes went to Pepsi-USA, where she moved into sales on the advice of her mentor to further her career down the line. In 1988, Barnes was named the vice president of national sales and marketing at Pepsi.

In January of 1992, Barnes was named president of Pepsi-Cola South. In this post, she was responsible for overseeing all manufacturing, sales, and distribution of Pepsi products for 13 states in the South. Her promotion made her the most senior female executive at the Pepsi-Cola Company, a division of PepsiCo. Less than two years later, in September of 1993, she was named chief operating officer of Pepsi-Cola Company. Barnes was responsible for overseeing the manufacture, sales, and distribution of Pepsi products in 24 states.

In 1996, Barnes was named president and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola North America, PepsiCo's North American division and the largest beverage division of the company. Again the highest-ranking female executive in PepsiCo as well as one of the top women executives in the United States, she remained in the post for two years. Her division had strong sales and profits, and she was known for her exceptional ability to build brand identity. In 1996, the company had sales of $7.73 billion and operating profits of $1.43 billion. After warning the company head that her tenure in the post might be short-lived, she resigned in September of 1997, and officially left the company at the end of the year.

The reason for her resignation from the company where she spent 22 years of her career was simple: Barnes wanted to spend more time with her three still-young children and her husband. The demands of her position limited the amount of time she saw her growing children as well her husband, who had resigned from his own executive position at PepsiCo in April of 1996 to spend time with their children. For nine years of marriage, Barnes and her husband also had to live in separate cities because of the demands of their careers; they commuted back and forth to see each other.

When Barnes resigned, she told Dottie Enrico of USA Today , "There was no pivotal event that led me to this decision. It's something I've struggled with for a long time. It was easier when the kids were babies, but now I'm sometimes faced with having only a few minutes a day to spend with each of my children and my husband. The time has come to devote 100 percent of my time to them."

In her last position at Pepsi-Cola, Barnes had a 70-hour work week. An average workday lasted from 3:30 a.m., when she began working at home so she could later have breakfast with her children, to 7:30 p.m., when she returned home. She usually had to spend two or three nights a week away from home as well, though she refused to do more than a very limited amount of work on weekends. The demands of the job, to which she wanted to give all it deserved, meant that she missed many of her children's birthdays, school plays, and other important events.

While PepsiCo made offers like a flexible schedule, a leave of absence, fewer responsibilities, or even a new position with the company, Barnes decided that she needed to move on. She commented to the Christian Science Monitor 's Coolidge shortly before she left, "The job I have is a wonderful job and exciting and thrilling. The people here are wonderful, and I get a lot of satisfaction. So I love what I do. But it's not a bad choice, to leave one thing you love to go to another thing you love."

Barnes' decision was shocking to many in corporate America and seen as indicative of a developing trend of the decade. Many couples in which both partners had demanding careers were experiencing burnout and looking for changes in corporate culture. Family time gained importance for a number of executives as balancing demanding careers and personal lives became more vital.

Barnes looked forward not only to having time with her family, but also a chance to develop personal interests like cooking, computer skills, reading, and even exercising for the first time in a decade. While her family became her primary focus as they moved back to her hometown of Chicago, she kept her hand in the corporate world in several ways. She continued to serve as a member of the board of di- rectors of seven companies. She began a tenure on Avon's board in 1994 and also served on the board of Sears, Roebuck & Company. In 1998, Barnes joined the board of the New York Times Company, the parent company of the New York Times , and later also took on the same post at Staples, Inc.

In addition, Barnes took on a temporary executive position and was active in education-related opportunities. When Starwood Hotels and Resorts realigned their senior management structure after planning to get out from the gaming business, Barnes was hired as the company's interim president. She was charged not only with managing Starwood's operations, but also helping find a new president and chief operating officer. Barnes remained in the post from November 1999 to March 2000. Two years later, Barnes worked as an adjunct professor at both the Kellogg Graduate School of Business and North Central College. She served as a member of the board of trustees for Augustana College and the Steering Committee for Kellogg Center for Executive Women as well.

In the early 2000s, Barnes was ready to return to full-time corporate work, while remaining on the boards of Avon, Sears, New York Times Company, and Staples. Such experiences prepared her for going back. Barnes told Don Babwin of the Associated Press State & Local Wire, "I've been very plugged into the business world in very different ways. I have been very active, and I think I have been able to see business from a lot of different industries."

Barnes was hired by Chicago-based Sara Lee Corporation in May of 2004 and officially began her tenure in July of 2004. Her son, Brian, believed she needed to be employed again. He told Eric Herman of the Chicago Sun-Times , "My mom was wondering if by going back to work we'd miss her, and we joked that we saw her too much. I think it's great. She was getting bored at home, and I think this is exactly what she wanted." Initially, Barnes served as a member of Sara Lee's board of directors, president, and chief operating officer for the company, which manufactured and sold food and beverage products, branded apparel, and household products worldwide as well as maintained a large foodservice business which catered to food distributors, cafeterias, and restaurants.

Only a short time later, in February of 2005, Barnes was promoted to president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sara Lee. At the time of her promotion, Sara Lee was undergoing a substantial reorganization which Barnes played a significant role in initiating. Earnings in fiscal 2004 were flat, and the company was making bold but risky plans to sell or spin off its $4.5 billion apparel business to concentrate on food, beverage, household, and body items as well as its foodservice business. Both moves were initially supported by Wall Street, though by divesting apparel interests, the company would be losing brands which accounted for 40 percent of its total revenue. Barnes believed the change would both simplify and make operations better, resulting in the same profits on smaller revenue five years down the line. It would also better focus sales for retailers as it was believed that Sara Lee had too many items to offer from multiple sales forces.

In October of 2005, Barnes was promoted again, when she was named chairman for Sara Lee. The move made Barnes in charge of the largest female-run company in the Fortune 500. While Barnes' restructuring of Sara Lee was initially seen as a positive, Sara Lee stock prices dropped 23 percent during the first year of her tenure as CEO, and both shareholders and some on Wall Street expressed their doubts about her plans. One criticism was that the apparel companies were not being sold for a high enough price to create long-term cash flow, while others bemoaned the lack of new products being introduced.

Barnes was aware that she faced pressure in this situation. She told USA Today 's Del Jones, "I feel all the weight of the world. The clock's ticking, and I'm very aware of that. It's been intense. It will continue to be intense." Yet Barnes also admitted to Jones, "I set a high bar for myself and others, and I think I help people get over that bar. That's my job." In her defense, she believed the strategy was going according to plan and the numbers forecast in 2005 were on track for 2006. Barnes pointed out that a foundation was being laid for a stronger, leaner Sara Lee.

By early 2007, rising profits for the company proved Sara Lee was turning the corner and analysts agreed with Barnes' assessment of forward progress. However, no matter what happens with Sara Lee, Barnes' ultimate goal was both professional and personal. She told Jones of USA Today , "I would love to demonstrate to the world that a woman can run a company well."



Associated Press, February 10, 2005.

Associated Press State & Local Wire, May 2, 2004; October 27, 2005.

BusinessWeek , May 17, 2004.

Business Wire, May 2, 2004; June 24, 2004.

Chicago Sun-Times , February 11, 2005, p. 69.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), February 22, 2007.

Christian Science Monitor , October 8, 1997, p. 1.

Crain's Chicago Business , September 18, 2006, p. 3.

Financial Times (London, England), February 27, 2006, p. 25.

New York Times , September 25, 1997, p. D1; February 20, 1998, p. D4; February 11, 2005, p. C5.

PR Newswire, February 14, 1994; November 4, 1999.

USA Today , September 25, 1997, p. 3B; February 21, 2006, p. 1B.


U.S. Executive Compensation Database—Executive Biographies , CoreData, Inc., 2007.

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