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Why D CEO Named Steven Williams Its 2022 CEO of the Year

By all measures, he has exceeded expectations since taking the helm of PepsiCo Foods North America in 2019. Here's how he's driving growth at the $21 billion enterprise.
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There are several things D CEO editors look for in selecting a leader to recognize as our CEO of the Year. (D CEO is D’s business publication.) Beyond pure business achievements, we look for chief executives who are ethical, authentic, respected, and caring, and we look for someone who is making the region better. Steven Williams, CEO of PepsiCo Foods, checks every box—and more.

He first joined the company in 1997 to work with the Quaker and Gatorade Brands in Oklahoma and Arkansas. By the time he was named CEO of PepsiCo Foods in 2019, he had held 14 different roles with the organization. The promotion put him in charge of the North American operations of both Frito-Lay and Quaker Foods, a combined $21 billion operation.

Richard Fisher, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, was on the parent company’s board of directors in at the time and among those who endorsed Williams’ selection. Since then, “Steven has been a remarkable gift that keeps on giving to PepsiCo shareholders,” Fisher says. “He runs the most vital part of the enterprise. Without Frito-Lay, you wouldn’t have the kind of stock performance PepsiCo has had. The stock is performing at all-time highs at a time when the rest of the market is being creamed. Without Steven, that would not be possible.”

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The company’s Plano-based foods division currently has 42 brands, most of which have myriad variations. Six brands generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue each—Lay’s, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Ruffles, and Quaker. Dozens more, including Fritos, rake in more than $500 million a year. As CEO, Williams oversees nearly 70,000 employees and is responsible for everything from “seed to shelf.”

Fisher describes Williams as authentic, thoughtful, a good manager, a strategic thinker, one who is open to new ideas, enthusiastic, and someone who executes well. “Frito-Lay represents more than half of the enterprise value of PepsiCo, and Steven has run it brilliantly,” Fisher says. “If he wishes, longer-term, I could see Steven one day running all of PepsiCo.”

Williams also is fiercely committed to giving back to the community. He serves as both board chair and 2024-25 fundraising chair for the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, with which PepsiCo Foods has been involved for 50 years. He’s a driving force behind Southern Dallas Thrives, a partnership be- tween the PepsiCo Foundation, Frito-Lay, and the United Way. About 25 percent of the company’s employees either live or work in the southern sector. He also has been pivotal in recruiting leaders at AT&T, Comerica, and other big to get involved.

“Steven is a leader who cares deeply about the ‘why,’” says United Way President and CEO Jennifer Sampson. “We do the work we do to make sure people have access to opportunities, and it’s so meaningful and rewarding to see a corporate leader who, even while dealing with enormous pressures and responsibilities, cares so much about helping others and the people we serve.”

Those pressures include making tough decisions when business conditions fluctuate. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that PepsiCo plans to eliminate hundreds of jobs in a corporate belt-tightening move. The cuts will be heavier in the New York-based beverages unit but will also affect Plano-based Frito-Lay and Chicago-based Quaker. “After reporting a jump in quarterly sales and profits, PepsiCo executives in October said they were cutting costs to offset the pressure on profit margins and to weather what appeared to be worsening macroeconomic conditions,” the WSJ reported.

A self-described “tough-minded optimist,” Williams is aware of the awesome responsibility he has as CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America. “I am privileged to do this job, and I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “It’s my moment now.”

To read our full CEO of the Year cover story, click here.

Author

Christine Perez

Christine Perez

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Christine is the editor of D CEO magazine and its online platforms. She’s a national award-winning business journalist who has…

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