Thursday, February 29, 2024 Feb 29, 2024
44° F Dallas, TX

Steven Williams is D CEO’s 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.
By |
Steven Williams

Steven Williams calls Frito-Lay’s manufacturing facility in Rosenberg, about 40 miles southwest of Houston, his “lucky plant.” During a tour there in early 2019, he got a call that would change his life. Two calls, actually. The first came from Vivek Sankaran, then-CEO of Frito-Lay North America. Word had been going around that Sankaran intended to leave the company. “I’m not supposed to be calling you, but I just wanted to tell you to answer your phone,” Sankaran cryptically said. “You’re going to hear from Ramon.” Shortly thereafter, Williams’ phone rang a second time. Ramon Laguarta, who succeeded Indra Nooyi as PepsiCo’s global chair and CEO in 2018, was on the other end of the line. He was calling with an offer to name Williams CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America. The move would put him in charge of North American operations of both Frito-Lay and Quaker Foods, a combined $21 billion+ operation.  

“Yeah, so I got the call, and it was awesome,” Williams says with a big smile. “I was excited. What I’ll say is I knew about the opening and felt that I’d be able to compete. You know what your potential is, but timing is a factor, too. So, I didn’t know if I would get the job, but I knew I had a shot.”

Williams had certainly put in his time, holding 14 different roles with the organization since first joining to manage sales of the Quaker brand in Oklahoma and Arkansas in 1997. Richard Fisher, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, was on PepsiCo’s board of directors in 2019 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.”

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. “He was also given one of the worst performers—Quaker Oats—which he has turned around and made very successful and very profitable. If he wishes, longer-term, I could see Steven one day running all of PepsiCo.”

The company’s Plano-based foods division currently has 42 brands, most of which come in myriad varieties. 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.” (See sidebar on p. 39.) “I am privileged to do this job, and I don’t take it for granted,” he says. “It’s my moment now.”

A True Seed-to-Shelf Business

Agricultural operations are foundational for Frito-Lay. Everything starts by cultivating each snack’s core ingredient. Here’s the company’s recipe for creating the perfect potato chip.

Step 1

Agricultural researchers in Rhinelander in northern Wisconsin develop various breeds of potatoes. Those used for chipping are round in shape, similar in size to a baseball, with skins that are thin and easily removed. They’re also engineered to not retain much moisture, as solid vegetables produce better yields.

Step 2

Frito-Lay contracts with farmers and sells them proprietary seeds that are ideal for their specific geographical regions. There are many varietals, which allow the potatoes to be grown everywhere from Arizona to Wisconsin.

Step 3

The farmers plant and tend their crops, overseen by Frito-Lay. All U.S. farms are 100 percent sustainably sourced. At harvest, the company buys the potatoes from the farmers and sends them to one of its more than 40 manufacturing sites around the country.

Step 4

The potatoes are washed, peeled, sliced, baked or fried, seasoned, and “turned into something delicious,” Williams says. The snacks are then packaged in bags and boxes and sent to a distribution center or store.

Born in 1966 in Haskell, Oklahoma, Williams was the youngest of nine children, which made for interesting times growing up, he says. “Some say I was a surprise; others say a miracle,” he jokes. His closest brother, James, is nearly 13 years older. His oldest sister, Lillian, is 25 years his senior. Williams’ father was a Baptist pastor in nearby Okmulgee and had a side hustle selling burial and life insurance. His mother worked at a school cafeteria and also cleaned homes and took on other jobs. Williams’ status as the baby of the family did not earn him preferential treatment. “Dad was a good man, but he was strict when it came to behavior—he wouldn’t even allow nicknames,” Williams says. “My sisters would try to call me Stevie, and he would say, ‘The boy’s name is Steven.’ He would call me ‘the boy,’ but he insisted that everyone else called me Steven.” (Williams goes by the longer version of his name; he never shortened it to Steve.)

Until moving away, he says, he didn’t realize how little his family had. “I don’t like saying ‘poor’ because we were rich in a lot of things,” Williams says. “There was a lot of love, and we never missed a meal. Everyone worked hard and pitched in.”

His father ruled with a heavy hand but, despite the hardships he faced as a Black man in rural Oklahoma, was an eternal optimist. He would often tell Williams to remember that “attitude determines your altitude, and the sky’s the limit.” His mother was a giving, hopeful, compassionate woman of faith who also was a pragmatist. Due to his father’s flexible schedule, Williams spent most of his days tagging along with his dad, a talented storyteller and preacher. He attended countless weddings and funerals, seeing people at the start of their adult lives and at the end of them.

The pandemic changed everything. PepsiCo Foods CEO Steven Williams says these shifts in consumer behavior are here to stay.

  • Supermarkets
  • E-Commerce
  • Value
  • Multipack

“During the heart of COVID, people didn’t want to venture far from home. They’ve since expanded to a broader repertoire of shopping, visiting three or four places every week, between local markets, convenience stores, natural stores, and clubs.”

“The pandemic accelerated e-commerce for food by about four or five years. Picking up orders and home delivery of items bought digitally is approaching a large number—double digits for us today.”

“Given the economic outlook, value is still super important to consumers. It shows up in different ways—not just absolute price points but trading down to less-expensive items and stocking up at places like Costco and Sam’s Club.”

“During COVID, people stopped pouring things into bowls, and multipacks took off. They offer convenience, portability, and portion control. Our multipacks are doing well on every channel.”“During COVID, people stopped pouring things into bowls, and multipacks took off. They offer convenience, portability, and portion control. Our multipacks are doing well on every channel.”

When he was 13 years old, Williams got a job stocking shelves at a small grocery store. During summers, his parents would send him to Tulsa to help his brother Richard with his air-conditioning and refrigeration business. As a high school graduation gift, he received luggage. “Our parents gave us three choices,” Williams says. “We could go to college, which was the preferred choice, join the military, or get a job. Whatever we did, we were expected to leave home.” 

Williams chose school and went to the University of Oklahoma, where he met his wife of 29 years, Christy. He entered the workforce before graduating but ultimately earned a degree in economics from the University of Central Oklahoma. “I always knew I wanted to work in business, but I studied economics because I wanted to understand how the world worked,” Williams says. “Growing up in a small town, we never talked about those things. I wanted to learn about money and how the economy worked.”

His brother James taught him to hunt and fish, and other role models helped guide him, too. Williams was also profoundly inspired by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. He admired the way they drove major action but did it in a way that brought people together. “They didn’t push people apart,” Williams says. “I’ve always admired that style—probably because it was close to the way my dad operated. I learned that—man, you can move mountains and you don’t have to be divisive. I also think about big bets—the moon shot and JFK-—and how history favors the bold. It’s about the actions you take. I think my leadership style has been informed by all these things.”

Williams began his career in 1991 in Oklahoma City as a buyer for grocery wholesaler Fleming Cos. His boss, a division president named Jim Costello, could be “mean as a snake” but took a genuine interest in Williams’ career development. Once, while sitting in a conference room, Costello told his young protégé to get the emotions out of it and stick to the facts. (“He didn’t say it quite that nicely,” Williams says.) It is advice that he carries with him to this day.

In 1997, Williams shifted over to Quaker Foods and Gatorade. When the two brands were acquired by PepsiCo in 2001, he and his colleagues weren’t thrilled. “Quaker was called ‘Quaker nice,’” he says. “And we were like, ‘This is not going to be good. What are we going to do once we get into the PepsiCo machine?’” Despite the fears, Williams says he found PepsiCo to be “a completely different animal” that provided plenty of opportunities for growth. 

Al Carey—whose various posts had him leading the North American operations of Quaker Foods, Frito-Lay, PepsiCo Beverages, and, ultimately, all of PepsiCo—is among those who took early notice of Williams. “I could tell he was going to be a winner,” Carey says. “His results were fantastic, and he had a collaborative management style. Customers knew they could trust him—his people did, too. He holds them to a high standard but with compassion. He makes people want to perform at a high level, and he understands that the old ‘command-and-control’ leadership style is no longer going to cut it.”

Carey identified Williams as a “high-potential leader,” a PepsiCo term for people targeted for corporate advancement. “We always made sure to map out careers of those on the high-potential list,” he says. “Steven was always on my list, and as we moved him into different jobs, I knew he was going to be a very high-level executive at some point if we gave him the critical experiences he needed.”

Williams’ consistently strong performance led to opportunities that took him back and forth between Los Angeles, Chicago, Bentonville, Arkansas, and Dallas-Fort Worth. He moved to North Texas in March of 2016 to lead Frito-Lay’s East Division. Two steps up the career ladder later, he was in the corner office.

Even after leaving PepsiCo, Carey continued to check in on Williams. “I remember my first year at Frito-Lay; it’s challenging when you don’t have anyone to talk with,” Carey says. “It can cause you to question some of your decisions. I wanted to be there for Steven. What’s interesting is I don’t think he needed me at all. He hit the ground running and accelerated growth. Steven has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Frito-Lay’s headquarters, which also houses a number of PepsiCo Foods associates, sits on nearly 300 acres in Plano’s Legacy business park, surrounded by green space and soothing water features. A second facility, separated from the main building by a grove of trees, is where snacks of the future are dreamed up. About 300 scientists, chefs, and researchers work in the company’s global R&D center of excellence. They’re informed by exceptionally deep data on consumer behavior and demographic trends—such as Gen Z’s penchant for tangy flavors. 

The company’s portfolio extends back to 1932, when C.E. Doolin began selling Fritos corn chips and Herman Lay started a snack food delivery company, later buying out the manufacturer. The two companies merged about 30 years later to create Frito-Lay. The trademark for Quaker’s star product, Quaker Oats, goes back even farther—to 1877. 

Williams often uses the word “ubiquitous” when talking about PepsiCo Foods brands, which can be found in 94 percent of U.S. households. “The value of our company is our brands,” he often says. Through the years, the R&D team has exponentially broadened the portfolio by creating new iterations of foundational brands—such as the Simply and Baked lines, as well as new flavors, like the super successful “Flaming Hot” products. 

PepsiCo Foods is also the biggest dip company in the country, with quesos, salsas, and other dips under the Tostitos, Fritos, and Lay’s brands.

One of Williams’ favorite new products is Tostitos Blue Corn, which was introduced about three years ago. “Set them out at a party, and they’ll soon be gone,” he says. Other newcomers include Flaming Hot Doritos, which builds on the success of Flaming Hot Cheetos, and a couple of varieties of Doritos 3D. Lay’s Poppables, potato puffs that come in different flavors, have done well, as has the Off the Eaten Path line, snacks made with rice, black beans, and chickpeas. Williams says consumers also love limited-time-offer mashups, such as Wavy Lay’s with Funyun flavors and a Cheetos line of macaroni and cheese, which leveraged the pasta capabilities of Quaker Foods. 

“The barrier to entry in our category is super-duper high,” he says. “Potatoes are readily available, and corn is readily available, but we can do things at scale, we do it with good science behind it, and we have these amazing brands. It’s hard to introduce a completely new snack to the world.”

Along with developing new products, Williams has made one acquisition since being named CEO, buying the company behind the PopCorners brand of popped-corn crisps in a deal that closed on March 1, 2020. He also upped PepsiCo Foods’ marketing game. In May, a partnership with the Netflix hit Stranger Things let Doritos 3D buyers scan a QR code and get access to a “Live from the Upside Down” virtual concert. The following month, Frito-Lay inked a deal to sponsor FIFA’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It’s also having conversations about the 2023 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand and expects to have discussions about the 2026 World Cup in North America, too.

The word “ubiquitous” applies not just to the company’s products but where they are found. They’re sold via mass retailers like Walmart, Target, and other big-box chains, traditional grocery stores, and convenience stores, both chains like 7-Eleven and small mom-and-pops. The snacks are also sold via Amazon and countless retailer e-commerce sites, a business that accounts for a double-digit percentage of sales and is growing. For several years, the company had been thinking about establishing a digital B2C platform of its own. The pandemic accelerated those plans, with going live in May 2020. Along with being a “nice little business” of its own, Williams says, the site allows the company to collect first-party data and foster deeper relationships with customers. It’s also a way to test limited-time products, such as ketchup- and mustard-flavored Doritos, sell custom-order multipacks (which are now packaged in boxes versus bags), and offer a few surprises, such as holiday gift items and a limited-edition Cheetos onesie. (Williams is still a little salty that the onesies sold out before he could get one for himself.)

The pandemic also drove home the importance of PepsiCo Foods’ impeccable record for safety and the trust the company has established with consumers. “We think of our manufacturing facilities as kitchens—we’re making food for people,” Williams says. “I feel great about every bag and every box; I never lose any sleep thinking about this.” 

When he began his CEO journey, Williams had plenty of options in deciding where to focus his attention; his company controls the value chain all the way through. Today, three years into his post, when talking specifics about everything from product innovation, marketing, and electrification to consumer trends, technology, and employee upskilling, he shows a deep and detailed understanding of the broad-ranging operations he oversees—knowledge no doubt gleaned through the varied roles he has held in his 25-year run with the company.

Among his greatest responsibilities is overseeing the company’s massive, nearly 70,000-member workforce. “We’re the biggest blue-chip company that is also blue-collar,” Williams says. “We have high-tech, R&D, and sophisticated consumer insights personnel, but about 65,000 of our employees either make, move, or sell our products.” Along with paying above-average wages, talent engagement, development, and retention initiatives fall into three buckets: worker, work, and workplace.

With 13 quarters behind him, Williams continues to look ahead. He’s focused on removing bottlenecks in manufacturing, making infrastructure investments to support growth (including a major investment in the company’s Irving plant), sustainability, automation, and digitization. “Growth is oxygen for any business,” he says. “It gives you the ability to do things you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. It’s helping us build a better company and double down on tech to drive growth using fewer resources.” 

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 between 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 recruited leaders at AT&T, Comerica, and other big corporate citizens 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.

“It’s clear that Steven is committed to the work,” Sampson continues. “He is passionate about strengthening the community, and his leadership of Southern Dallas Thrives is an example of walking the talk. Along with investing, he encourages others to get involved, and that’s how you drive measurable results and impact.”

A self-described “tough-minded optimist,” Williams says he can’t  imagine a future that isn’t bright. “I think we’re operating on the cusp of something truly special,” he says. “We are winning, and we’re going to keep winning.”

The Snack-Maker’s Picks

He’s surrounded by salty (and a few sweet) goodies at PepsiCo Food’s corporate headquarters in Plano. So, what are CEO Steve Williams’ Frito-Lay favorites? It’s a long list, he says, depending on his mood, but here are his top three:

  • Nacho Cheese Doritos: “I love all of my children, but this one takes the cake.”
  • Ruffles All Dressed: “They’re only available in Canada, but I’ve got a stash. They’re seasoned with many good things, including ketchup, maple, and vinegar.”
  • Lays BBQ: “I love these traditional barbecue chips. Miss Vickie’s Smokehouse BBQ kettle chips are also top-notch.”


Christine Perez

Christine Perez

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

Related Articles

Dallas 500

Meet the Dallas 500: Chris Gay, Evry Health

The health insurance CEO shares his desires for the industry, favorite local hidden gems, and the time he rolled his first car.

Ebby Halliday: The First Lady of Dallas Real Estate

Halliday transferred her skills as a hat saleswoman to the real estate field. She proceeded to build a billion-dollar enterprise.
Partner Content

When Lending Is Tight, Industry Leadership Is Key to Moving Forward.

Q and A with Bob Mohr, Founder and CEO, Mohr Capital
By Mohr Capital