By: Ibrahim Maali
Grilled cheese is the food of choice in an economic downturn-at least according to Irene Rosenfeld.
Rosenfeld, chair and chief executive officer of Kraft Foods, discussed
cheese and many other topics at the USA Today CEO Forum Wednesday in
Duke’s Fuqua School of Busines.
USA Today columnist David Lieberman interviewed Rosenfeld for the forum
in front of 200 people, mostly business school students. He asked
Rosenfeld about everything from her take on biofuels to how Kraft has
been affected by the economy to her favorite Kraft cookie-which is,
incidentally, the Oreo.
Rosenfeld has been at Kraft since 1981, working her way up through the
ranks before becoming CEO in June 2006 and chair in March 2007.
Lieberman asked the CEO about the “glass ceiling” for women in high
positions of business, pointing out that Rosenfeld is one of only six
female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Rosenfeld said she believes that
officers in the field are beginning to recognize that women are
“competent business people,” too.
As the economy sours, people tend to eat more frequently at home,
Rosenfeld said. She added that when people come home to eat, they “come
home to Kraft.”
“The food business is a good place to be in such a climate because
people have to eat,” she said. “People are eating grilled cheese a lot
Unlike most people who applaud President-elect Barack Obama’s biofuel
investment initiative, Rosenfeld is concerned. She said 40 percent of
the food supply is being diverted for use in fuel, which is driving up
the price of food without any real evidence of benefit to the
Rosenfeld added that with Kraft’s diverse assortment of food
products-including Kool-Aid and DiGiorno-the company offers options for
people who may not want to pay a lot for a meal.
“Our efforts are focusing more on snacks, quick meals and health and wellness than before,” she said.
Lieberman steered the interview toward Kraft’s specific corporate
management strategies, asking about employee initiative programs and
government plans to increase regulation of the food industry.
Rosenfeld explained the extent to which Kraft supports new ideas
brought forward by employees. She mentioned one employee in particular,
a practicing Muslim who drew up a business plan to show how halal
products would be a viable option for Kraft. Now, she said, Kraft will
be coming out with such a line.
The CEO stressed the need for corporate responsibility in advertising and a company’s obligation to make healthy products.
“The onus is on the companies to ensure we are behaving in a responsible fashion,” she said.
Speaking to a room full of people working toward their MBAs in the
current economic recession, Rosenfeld also addressed the strength of
the American MBA in an increasingly globalized business scene. She said
knowing what you want and letting others know your goals is one of the
most important lessons she has learned.