CHICAGO — Long before she became chief executive of Oreo cookies, Irene Rosenfeld wanted to be commander in chief of the United States.
“I felt very strongly that girls should have the same opportunities as boys,” said Rosenfeld, 64, of her childhood dream while growing up on New York’s Long Island.
That particular glass ceiling remains intact. But today, Rosenfeld is one of the most powerful women in business as chairman and CEO of Mondelez International, the $26 billion global snack and candy company known for brands like Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers, and Sour Patch Kids candy. Under her watch, the company, based in suburban Chicago, has invested in its top-selling brands, cut costs, and expanded profit margins.
At a recent luncheon, Rosenfeld was named International Executive of the Year by the Executives’ Club of Chicago, the first woman to be honored in the award’s 22-year history.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you feel, as one of the relatively few female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that you’re treated differently or held to a different standard than a male CEO?
A: I do think there’s a need, because there’s fewer of us — we really have to distinguish ourselves. So in that sense, yes. But I would say that I’m delighted by the fact that it is not the main topic of conversation. … Our results have to speak for themselves.
Q: Is that something that’s changed over time?
A: I think so. Years ago, the whole topic was about being a woman. I think some of the coverage of Madeleine Albright, for example, in her early days as Secretary of State just felt a little bit skewed and a little bit inappropriate. … It was far more focused on the fact that she was a woman than perhaps the role that she held and the accomplishments that she delivered. I’m delighted to see female leaders like Angela Merkel and certainly Hillary Clinton treated in a much more evenhanded way.
Q: You are also the CEO who laid off hundreds of workers at the Nabisco plant in Chicago when Mondelez shifted some of its operations to Mexico. Why was that necessary?
A: We compete in a global economy. Particularly in these last couple of years, as we have seen a significant economic downturn in the form of slower GDP growth in all of our markets around the world, the volatility we’ve seen in currency, the strength of the U.S. dollar against just about every foreign currency, the incredible volatility we’ve seen in commodity costs, inputs like cocoa that reached 20-year highs, as well as some of the geopolitical unrest that we’ve seen around the world … in that context, ensuring that our cost structure and our margin structure is robust is imperative.
Our assets in our Nabisco factories were 50, 60 years old. They’re slow, they are not state of the art, they didn’t have the flexibility to make a variety of the packaging formats that our consumers are looking for today.
So we engaged in a massive undertaking. We invested about $2.5 billion in our supply chain around the world to bring it up to speed and to be able to invest in state-of-the-art assets that could run faster, run more efficiently, and take up less floor space.
Q: How is the political climate in the U.S. under the Trump administration affecting Mondelez?
A: I think it’s too early to say it has affected us because there really have been no firm changes in policy. Our hope (is) that this administration will respect the need for us to be competitive in a global economy, will respect the value of business in that regard, and will formulate their policies accordingly.
Q: The rumor that Kraft Heinz could acquire Mondelez continues to pop up every now and again. Any thoughts you can share on the likelihood of that happening?
A: I read the same press that you do and see the speculation. If you look at their playbook, the odds are they will buy something. But our focus remains on driving our business. … I think we’re poised to start to see these emerging markets start to come back. First quarter, our emerging markets were up 3.5 percent (in organic revenue growth). We feel very good about our performance in India and Russia. China’s starting to come back. The only emerging market that continues to be a little weak is Brazil. So I think we’re really poised to break out (in revenue as well as profits).
Q: What impact will Amazon’s planned acquisition of Whole Foods have on Mondelez and the rest of the food industry?
A: I think the immediate reaction both in terms of expected impact and the speed of that impact was a little bit overstated. But I think it clearly is a very concrete signal about the fact that consumers are shopping in a broader array of channels today than ever before. … We have built up an e-commerce organization and our commitment is to get to a $1 billion business by 2020.
Q: You’ve said the search for your eventual replacement is a matter of best practice for the board of directors. How much longer do you want to do this?
A: As you might imagine, it’s something we’ve talked about for a number of years. As the chair of the board, I’ve been actively engaged in those conversations and will continue to be going forward. If and when we have something to report, we’ll talk about it.
Q: When you do eventually retire, what is it you want to do?
A: I’ve been quite busy with my day job. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. When the time comes, it’s something that I’ll give a little bit more thought to.
Q: No travel plans?
A: We’re in 165 countries. I’ve done more travel than I need to in my lifetime.