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Meet the Guy Leading Frito-Lay Into the Future

Snacking is evolving, but President and COO Vivek Sankaran has Plano-based Frito-Lay evolving with it.
By |
Sean Berry

Why you need to know him: Because he leads the $15 billion snacks division of PepsiCo. Enough said.

Plano-based Frito-Lay is playing a huge role in driving its parent company’s profits and revenue. That’s because snacking is on the rise—big time. Gone are the sit-down family meals we all grew up with; today, it’s all about eating on the run. “Our lives have become deconstructed,” says Vivek Sankaran, president and COO of Frito-Lay, “and it’s not a trend that’s going away anytime soon.”

The food and beverage industry is experiencing transformational change on several fronts. Beyond getting calories on the move, consumer tastes have evolved. They’re wanting a wider variety of flavors. People also are changing the way they shop, giving up weekly trips to the grocery store in favor of at-home delivery.

“Our biggest challenge is the changing retail landscape and how it’s going to sharpen in the future,” Sankaran says. “It’s an uncertain future, which creates plenty of opportunities, and plenty of challenges.”

But if there’s ever a jam at Frito-Lay, Sankaran can fix it—literally. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, he worked as a photocopier service engineer. “I can still fix a photocopier today,” he says with pride.

He came to America to attend Georgia Tech, worked for four years as an engineer for a Belgian company, then got his MBA from the University of Michigan. For 14 years, he worked for McKinsey & Co., advising Fortune 100 retail and tech companies on how to run their businesses. But advising isn’t the same thing as doing. So, when former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi (she’s now chairman) offered him an executive post at the global food and beverage giant, he made the switch. He worked with her as chief of strategy for two years in New York before shifting over to Frito-Lay.

Although Sankaran was excited about the opportunity in Texas, he wasn’t exactly confident it would last. That’s why he and his wife rented instead of buying a home. For four years.

“When we first came here, I told her there was a 50 percent chance I’d be fired,” Sankaran says. “Most consultants don’t end up being good operators, and Frito-Lay is a demanding operating environment. … After four years, I came home one day and said to my wife, ‘Hon, I think we’re good.’”

Sankaran says he wishes he would have made the move to “doing” much earlier in his career. It’s fun to see strategies generate real results. And leading, versus advising, requires a different skill set. “I’ve realized how much I didn’t know as a consultant,” Sankaran says. “I’m learning all the time about the art of management, and that’s a really exciting journey for me personally.”

The first step, he says, was figuring out what he is good at and, more important, what he isn’t—something that “takes a little bit of courage” to admit, he says. Sankaran surrounds himself with others who have those strengths. As president, he spends a lot of time making sure everyone has clarity on where the company is heading, so everyone is rowing in the same direction. “I help people understand why we are doing it, how we are doing it, and why it’s important that we stick with it,” Sankaran says. “Ultimately, there’s very little I can get done by myself. Any leader in my type of role can only do things through other people.”

“Our lives have become deconstructed,” Sankaran says. “And it’s not a trend that’s going away anytime soon.”

PepsiCo employs more than 260,000 people worldwide. About 55,000 people work for Frito-Lay North America. Initially formed by the merger of companies led by Nashville potato-chip maker Herman Lay and Texas corn-chip entrepreneur C.E. Doolin, Frito-Lay has stayed true to its roots. “The pulse of our company is on the front lines … in the factories, in the warehouses, in the trucks, driving products to the store,” Sankaran says. “We are blue collar, but overachievers. That excites me, because I love people, and I especially love seeing them do things they couldn’t think they could do.”

Frito-Lay has been in Dallas for 85 years. About 25 percent of PepsiCo.’s 6,500 North Texas employees live in South Dallas or work in one of the two plants or five warehouses the company has in the southern sector. Frito-Lay has been actively involved in the community for decades, but recently decided to take things up a notch, inspired by a philosophy put forth by Nooyi called “performance with purpose.” The idea is to strike a balance between short-term and long-term priorities, focusing not just on the level of returns, but the level and duration of returns.

Bringing it home, Frito-Lay and PepsiCo have aligned with the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas to launch a $2 million initiative called “Southern Dallas Thrives.” It aims to “connect the dots” and generate sustainable results by focusing on preschool education, meals, educational support, and employment opportunities for families in the southern sector.

“What we are hoping is that we are just the catalyst,” Sankaran says. “As much as we can do, we can’t do it by ourselves. We’re hoping other companies in Dallas will join us. It’s not about Frito-Lay, it’s not about PepsiCo, it’s about southern Dallas.”

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