It's pretty apparent that the president and chief executive officer's suite at Kraft Inc. was designed and furnished for a man. The colors are dark. The furniture is large and heavy. You can just tell by looking.
But things are about to change. There's a new CEO in town.
Last May, Betsy DeHaas Holden (GSESP78, KGSM82) was named to the top post at Kraft, the largest U.S.-based food company. After nearly two decades in the business, Holden became, as the New York Times wrote, "one of the most powerful female executives in the food industry."
Headquartered in Northfield, Ill., Kraft, a subsidiary of Philip Morris Co., employs more than 36,000 people in North America. It has 10 business units and produces more than 70 major food brands. Odds are there are Kraft products in nearly every household in the United States. Kool-Aid, Raisin Bran, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Cool Whip, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Jello are just some of the company's staples. And only six weeks after Holden's promotion, the company announced it was acquiring the food operations of rival Nabisco, bringing the combined company's annual revenues to more than $24 billion in North America.
C. Manly Molpus, president and chief executive officer of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, says Holden is up to the job. "Betsy has risen to every big challenge she has faced, and she will no doubt do the same in this case. Her energy, enthusiasm and her business acumen will serve her well in the task she's facing," he says.
Holden was born in Lubbock, Texas, the middle child of three, and was raised in the Pittsburgh area. "I grew up in an era where women went into teaching and nursing," Holden says. "My family is a medical family [her father and older brother are doctors], and I didn't have much exposure to business. At that time I wasn't sure business was something I wanted to be a part of." She also grew up on Kraft food products. "It's one of the reasons I love this job," she says.
Holden majored in education at Duke University and in her senior year, a recruiter from Northwestern caught her attention. "I had an undergraduate degree in education," says Holden. "I wanted to teach, and I was finding it was a challenge to get a job without experience. Northwestern had a master's in teaching program where you taught during the day and went to school at night. I looked at it and said, 'This is great.'"
In 1977 she moved to Evanston and settled into graduate housing near Foster and Emerson. After four years in Durham, N.C., Holden was ill prepared for what followed. "We had one of the worst winters in history," she laughs. "I was in shock at how cold it was! We had to put blankets over our cars so they would start in the morning and we could get to our teaching jobs."
The program placed her in the Park Ridge, Ill., public school system, and after graduation she taught fourth grade in Glencoe, Ill., for two years. It was then that a freelance project helped change the trajectory of her career.
"I worked for Playskool and helped to develop kids' toys and games when I was teaching," Holden recalls. "I was on the R&D [research and development] side, but I saw what the business people were doing and thought it looked pretty fun."
Holden debated returning to Northwestern to study journalism, but the business bug was biting. "As I got out in the world and saw all the opportunities, I decided that business was a great match. I love creative things, but I also really love the analytical," she says. "I thought business gave me a broader set of opportunities there for both sides."
In 1980 Holden returned to study at Kellogg, and during the next two years she met and married her husband, Arthur (KGSM81), got a master's degree in management and finance in marketing, was named valedictorian of her class and was honored as Outstanding Marketing Student. She also taught a gifted program for fourth, fifth and sixth graders in Glencoe.
The Holdens moved to New York when she was offered a job in the desserts division of General Foods Corp. in suburban White Plains. Two years later they returned to the Chicago area when her husband took a job with Baxter Travenol (now Baxter International Inc.). She became a brand manager in Kraft's venture division.
Of her success at Kraft, Molpus says, "Betsy did it the old- fashioned way: a lot of hard work, focus and creativity."
Mary Kay Haben, executive vice president of Kraft Foods and president of Kraft Cheese division, isn't surprised by Holden's accomplishments. "Betsy's always been one of those people who sees the big picture and knows where she's going. And this is a company where, when people deliver, they get ahead."
Without hesitation Holden says her objective from the start was to reach the top. "When we left business school, my husband and I both said that we wanted to run a company. That was always my goal."
Her progress earned her the respect of her colleagues, the attention of management and a few choice nicknames. "I was called a lot of things." Holden says. "Cheese Whiz. The Big Cheese. But I called myself the Dairy Queen!"
Holden describes her management style as "positive, upbeat, enthusiastic. I'd say it's very collaborative, team-oriented. I think I'm good at inspiring, setting a vision of what we need to go and do -- and then engaging the team and putting together the game plan to get there."
Much of Holden's success can be attributed to her sharp focus on long-range planning both at work and at home. It's a necessity. Her husband is chief executive officer and chair of the SNP Consortium, a group developing an applied map of the human genome. The two are raising a son and daughter who are in their middle-school years.
"I think she's able to do what she does because of great discipline and foresight," says Susan Abrams, who wrote about Holden in her book, The New Success Rules for Women (Prima Publishing, 2000). "She's a phenomenal leader, a phenomenal role model, while being an active mom and family member. She really does apply the same strategy at home as she does in the office."
Holden's approach involves plotting out five-year plans and identifying what it takes to meet the objectives. "We set rolling five-year goals," she says, "and we believe that we control our own destiny and can achieve what we want. Part of how we're able to manage the pieces is that we do lay out what we want to accomplish, and we use that to help us set priorities and make the tradeoffs. This isn't some rigid, written-down strategic plan. We just sit down and say, if the world played out exactly the way we wanted it to, what would we want the next five years to look like and what do we need to do to make that happen?"
She uses the same strategy with colleagues at Kraft. "I have a career model that I use for the people who work for me," Holden says. "I say, 'OK, you can have anything in the world. What would you like the next five years to be for you?' And then, 'What skills do you need, what experiences do you need, what development do you need, and how do we help make that happen?'"
She benefited greatly from a work/life course Kraft offered in 1990. It involved looking at seven different areas of one's life and then writing a mission statement. "It was looking back at your life from your deathbed and what you wanted to have accomplished," she says. "What do you want people to be saying about you, what impact do you want to have had on the world?
"That's had a profound impact on my life," Holden says. "The things I'm involved in are at-risk youth, furthering the progress of women and using innovation and creativity. I use [the mission statement] as a guiding force. I know my goals from a family standpoint, and when you look at how I spend my time and the activities I'm involved in, it's very much geared to that. If something doesn't fit, I say no. You have to have some way to make your tradeoffs."
Holden's planning permits her to balance roles as wife, mother and CEO while still having time for a wide range of business and community activities. She serves on the Kellogg Graduate School of Management's Advisory Board, the Grocery Manufacturers Association Board of Directors, and the boards of Evanston Northwestern Hospital and the Ravinia Music Festival. She and her husband teach Sunday School classes at their church.
She also serves as president of the board for the Off the Street Club, a 100-year-old organization that assists at-risk kids on Chicago's West Side. Her most recent challenge there was to spearhead the effort to raise $6 million for a capital campaign for a new facility. "Through sheer determination, and not a little bit of courage, she created a miracle," says Ralph Campagna, the club's executive director.
"We got the best gift possible when we got Betsy," Campagna adds. "She has a special place in the lives of thousands of inner-city kids. She never lets go of a kid's hand, whether it's one of hers or one of ours. She started as a teacher, and in a way she still is. She has a laserlike business sense that she mixes with faith in the future.
"There's a saying," Campagna says. "'A person is never so tall as when they stoop to help a child.' Betsy is the biggest person we know."
Many children, including her own, have benefited in other ways from her time at Kraft. "I often try new products on kids who are over at our house," she says, laughing. "They love to come to the house. I take ads home, I take new flavors of things home. I do whole neighborhoods! The neighborhood cried when I moved from [Tombstone] Pizza. But I said, 'Don't worry, it's OK. We've got grilled cheese coming, folks!'"
Though free time is scarce, Holden enjoys reading, playing the piano, running and golf, but she says her young son is now better than she is on the course. She also brings her children along to activities at the Off the Street Club. Those times are "very important for our kids, they really broaden their horizons," she says.
As she settles into her new role as CEO, Holden, as expected, looks to the future. "We've done extremely well," she says, "and as we look at continuing that strong performance, the biggest challenge in our industry is accelerating top-line growth so the products, acquisitions, new targets, new channels continue to accelerate our growth through innovative products and marketing. You have to do things better and do things differently, but we have a great foundation to build from."
When asked how she would like people to look back on her tenure once she is finished, Holden says she wants the company to be seen "as the best place to work. We're an organization that is incredibly committed to people and people development. Our management philosophy is very focused on that. This is a very high-quality, high-integrity, high-energy, results-driven company. We recognize that people are our greatest asset. By attracting, retaining, building and developing the best people, that's how we'll win."
Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.