2020-09-21 03:54:22 UTC
PepsiCo Boss Donald Kendall, Who Started the Cola Wars, Has Died
As CEO, Kendall launched the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ and beat Coca-Cola into the Soviet Union
By Mike Esterl and Jennifer Maloney
Updated Sept. 20, 2020 7:08 pm ET
Donald M. Kendall, who built PepsiCo Inc. into a snack-and-beverage juggernaut and introduced the Soviet Union to American cola at the height of the Cold War, died Saturday. He was 99 years old.
The executive, who grew up milking cows and finished just three semesters of college, became chief executive of Pepsi-Cola Co. in 1963 at age 42 and presided over the company until his retirement in 1986. During that time, sales grew nearly 40-fold through acquisitions and the “Pepsi Challenge”—its high-profile marketing assault on the dominance of rival Coca-Cola Co.
“He was relentless about growing our business, a fearless leader, and the ultimate salesman,” said PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Ramon Laguarta. “In many ways, he was the man who made PepsiCo PepsiCo.”
Shortly after Mr. Kendall became CEO, the company launched its “Pepsi Generation’’ campaign that cast Pepsi as the hip, upstart cola for young people and Coke as staid and old-fashioned. PepsiCo put its flagship brand name on Diet Pepsi, which catapulted diet soda into the big time, as a more cautious Coke stuck with its diet offering, Tab. And under Mr. Kendall, the company conducted its “Pepsi Challenge” taste tests pitting Pepsi directly against Coke.
Mr. Kendall famously said both companies benefited from the “cola wars,’’ a rivalry that continues to this day. “They brought out the best in us,” he said. “If there wasn’t a Coca-Cola, we would have had to invent one, and they would have had to invent Pepsi.”
In 1965, Mr. Kendall agreed to another bold move—merging New York-based Pepsi-Cola Co. with Dallas-based potato-chip giant Frito-Lay Co.
Born on a farm in Sequim, Wash., a young Mr. Kendall accepted an athletic scholarship to Western Kentucky State College and worked part time as a shoe salesman. In 1941, he enlisted as a Navy pilot during World War II, flying combat missions in the Pacific, according to a company biography.
He joined Pepsi-Cola in 1947, first working in a bottling plant in New Rochelle, N.Y., and then on a delivery truck, before becoming a fountain-syrup salesman. Five years later, at 31, he was promoted to vice president of national sales. Mr. Kendall headed the international division from 1957 to 1963, nearly doubling the number of countries that sold Pepsi, according to the company.
In 1959, Mr. Kendall organized a booth at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. With the help of Vice President Richard Nixon, he offered Pepsi to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who agreed to several refills and declared it “refreshing.’’ Photos of the exchange were published around the world.
Pepsi didn’t open its first plant in the Soviet Union until 1974, and only after agreeing to a complex barter arrangement involving Stolichnaya vodka. Still, that was several years earlier than Coke, which had expanded into more than 100 other countries. Mr. Kendall boasted that Pepsi was the first American consumer product to be sold in the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kendall came to know several heads of state, none more than Mr. Nixon, who was a legal adviser in the 1960s and played piano at Mr. Kendall’s wedding in 1965. In 1968, after being elected president, Mr. Nixon asked Mr. Kendall to get some advice from departing President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Johnson relayed that the audio-taping system he had installed was a helpful organizing tool—advice Mr. Nixon later regretted when recordings helped drive him from office during the Watergate scandal, according to several historical accounts.
Mr. Kendall also was close friends with the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the godfather of one of his children. As chairman of the American Ballet Theatre Foundation, he recruited Mr. Baryshnikov to become artistic director in 1980, according to multiple accounts.
He was on less-friendly terms with the actress Joan Crawford, who had married Pepsi-Cola CEO and Chairman Alfred Steele and joined the company’s board after Mr. Steele died in 1959. Ms. Crawford and Mr. Kendall clashed frequently, with Ms. Crawford nicknaming him Fang, according to several published accounts.
In 1982, as Mr. Kendall was approaching retirement, PepsiCo was hit by a major scandal after executives falsely inflated profits for five years at the company’s Mexican and Philippine bottling businesses. According to a company biography, Mr. Kendall’s pay was cut 40% and he canceled bonuses and borrowed $1 million to buy PepsiCo stock.
By late 1983, though, Mr. Kendall gave the green light for Pepsi to sponsor a Jacksons reunion concert tour with Michael Jackson for a $5 million price tag—regarded as an astronomical figure at the time.
Mr. Kendall retired as CEO in 1986, remaining on PepsiCo’s board until 1991. He kept an office at the company’s headquarters in Purchase N.Y., just a few miles from his home in Greenwich, Conn., and was a frequent visitor. He also traveled widely as a PepsiCo ambassador—including to Russia, where he received an Order of Friendship medal from President Vladimir Putin in 2004.
Despite a two-decade grip on the company, Mr. Kendall carefully avoided involvement in his successors’ decisions but always made himself available for counsel, Michael White, PepsiCo’s former international chief, wrote in a lengthy tribute in 2009.
Mr. Kendall died of natural causes at home, his family said. Mr. Kendall is survived by his wife, Sigrid Kendall, known to friends as Bim, and four children, Edward, Donna, Donald Jr. and Kent.