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Irene Rosenfeld - Krafts CEO -A profile

Irene Rosenfeld: She certainly takes the biscuitThe head of Kraft, one of the world's most powerful women, was never going to back down in her takeover of Cadbury, despite upsetting investor Warren Buffett and incurring the wrath of British workers and politicians

 Irene Rosenfeld works in an industry that provides a rich seam of puns for headline writers and scribes alike. The Kraft Foods chief executive is the Big Cheese, the Cookie Queen, the cat who got the (Cadbury's) Creme Egg. Not surprisingly, she is often referred to as having drunk the Kool-Aid (yet another Kraft brand) of her mega-corporation.

It is all good, clean fun that has brightened the accounts of Kraft's successful attempt to take over beloved British chocolate-maker Cadbury. It was a classic business battle that unusually made the jump from the business pages to the front pages. It pitted the sprawling American conglomerate against the plucky British independent. It involved some of the most famous brands in British consumer life. It saw hostile bids, public spats, shareholder revolts and a campaign to keep the firm resolutely British.

If it had been a Hollywood movie conforming to type, Cadbury would have emerged unscathed. Rosenfeld and Kraft would have slunk back to Chicago with their tails between their legs. British chocolate-making would have continued – Willy Wonka-like – to exist at the centre of cultural life for the sweet-toothed and free from the malign influence of foreign industrialists.

But this is real life. Rosenfeld won her battle and the Cadbury board in the end happily surrendered to a higher Kraft bid and recommended the deal to its shareholders. Such are the imperatives of modern capitalism and, in truth, few realistic observers ever saw any other likely outcome.

But there is no doubt that it was a remarkable coup for Rosenfeld. Not only did she lead one of America's biggest companies into one of the biggest deals of its history, she did it by riding roughshod over the objections of its most high-profile investor, Warren Buffett. The "Sage of Omaha" had come out publicly against the deal, something that would strike terror into the hearts of almost any chief executive. But Rosenfeld did not shirk. Politely, but firmly, and never with a trace of doubt, she just ploughed on. Rosenfeld wanted a deal. And a deal she got.

No one should have been surprised. Though her public profile is deeply private and unfailingly polite, Rosenfeld is not someone to be pushed around. Buffet might have his mass following, but Rosenfeld is no pushover. She has flourished as a woman in a man's world. She is one of just 12 women running a top US corporation. Among the 30 US firms in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, she is one of just two.

Forbes magazine recently ranked her sixth on its list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. She was just five places behind German chancellor Angela Merkel. That is pretty rarefied company. As results in the epic Kraft vs Cadbury battle showed, the surprise was not that Rosenfeld won. It was that anyone really doubted her.

Rosenfeld, however, does not fit the media archetype of the ball-busting American businesswoman. There are no dramatic power suits, no huge shoulder pads, expensive hairstyles or a personality so large and aggressive that it overcomes the testosterone levels of the male executives. Instead, Rosenfeld is the classic example of still waters running deep.

Throughout the battle over Cadbury, Rosenfeld did just enough media work to ensure that she was present but never enough to mean she became the story. She was never off-message, charming the press, but never letting them leave with a real story of the kind that journalists' love and chief executives hate. She was all about the deal, all the time, a true competitor in the sense that it was the end result that mattered, not achieving it in dramatic style.

That sense of competitiveness came early to Rosenfeld, but it did not spring from obviously fertile ground. She is a child of the American suburbs of the 1950s, an era much frowned upon since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but one that Rosenfeld's quiet, understated but muscular approach to business seems to typify.

Rosenfeld was born on 3 May 1953, to a young Jewish couple, Seymour and Joan Blecker, who had settled in Westbury, about 30 miles from New York. It was a story-book suburban upbringing. Her father served in the army during the Second World War and then became an accountant. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom dedicated to raising her two daughters. Rosenfeld excelled at pretty much everything at school. She was a keen sportswoman, something that she continues to be with her well-known passion for roller-blading. She played on school sports teams and even now she still cites her high school sports teacher as a major influence.

It is no coincidence that that teacher, Joan Case, went on to become one of the first female administrators in New York state's once male-dominated teaching system. Another oft-cited influence is Martina Navratilova whose forceful playing style, without being showy, matches Rosenfeld's ideas about business. Rosenfeld's drive was obvious. She often jokes about how seriously she took her role as treasurer in her local Brownie group, but the truth behind the gag is obvious. She was a keen student, acted, sang in a choir and worked on the student newspaper. On Kraft's website, Rosenfeld describes her childhood ambition thus: "President of the United States… really!"

But despite such lofty ambitions Rosenfeld almost opted for a life in academia. Attracted at first by its top-notch athletics reputation, Rosenfeld went to study at the Ivy League Cornell University in 1971. Though injury cut short her sporting activities, she excelled academically. She gained a degree in psychology (something that many of her admirers see as very significant) and then a masters in business administration and a doctorate in marketing and statistics. She also met her husband, Phillip Rosenfeld, who was a fellow student. They had two daughters and Rosenfeld finished her doctorate (to acclaim) while heavily pregnant.

Tragically, Phillip died in 1995. Rosenfeld kept his surname, using her maiden name as a middle name, even after marrying her second husband, Richard Illgen, an investment banker.

After her doctorate, Rosenfeld faced a choice: academia or business. She chose the latter, using her marketing skills and natural feel for consumers' wants at a New York advertising agency. After two years, she switched sides and went directly into her former clients' businesses, joining General Foods in 1981. That began her long career in the world of mass-produced food.

As General Foods grew and was eventually swallowed by Kraft, so Rosenfeld's career flourished. Kool-Aid was her first brand, which she successfully started pitching to youngsters rather than their parents. Successes with other household brands of the American kitchen followed – such as tinkering with how Oreos could be sold in China – and she rose up the ranks. She was, as one might expect, a highly competitive workaholic, but one who was known for seeking out and embracing new ideas. In a world where brand names are household staples, there is a natural conservatism. But Rosenfeld defied that and with great success.

After three years at rival Frito-Lay, she was asked back to Kraft as chief executive in 2006. At that time, the firm was in trouble, focused on lay-offs and cost-cutting. Rosenfeld rapidly replaced layers of management and turned the company around. She then controversially sold off its frozen pizza business and launched the Cadbury deal. It was all risky stuff but carried out with her usual understated certitude.

She and her husband live in an exclusive Chicago suburb. But the two-storey, £2.4m property is hardly a mega-mansion. They are a private couple, active in the local synagogue and occasionally attending the opera. They give generously to charity, but not in a way designed to be noticed. In effect, it is the life that Rosenfeld grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s, just updated to a much wealthier suburb. Indeed, it is impossible to find anyone willing to fault Rosenfeld's decency.

Even Buffett, as he waged his campaign against the Cadbury deal, admitted as such. "I think's she's a decent person. She could be a trustee under my will. I just don't want her making this particular deal," he said. When even your foes can't find a bad word to say about you, you must be getting something right. But that is not to underplay her resolve or willingness to take risks.

Beneath the still surface lie doubts but also an even stronger will to overcome them. A rare insight was provided into Rosenfeld's mind in 2007, in a speech at her alma mater, Cornell. She discussed the philosophy behind her radical rejig of Kraft management. "Sometimes I lie awake thinking, 'Should we?' And then I think, 'How can we not?'" she said. It is hard not to see such an attitude in her bold triumph of bringing the Cadbury deal home

 Source : Paul Harris The Observer, Sunday 24 January 2010

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