If you want to see Steven Williams’ eyes light up, mention Nacho Cheese Doritos.
As CEO of PepsiCo Foods North America, the 56-year-old oversees a $21 billion portfolio of chips, dips and convenience foods: Doritos, Lay’s, Cheetos, Tostitos, Ruffles, Fritos, Stacy’s Pita Chips, SunChips, Quaker snacks and hot breakfast cereals.
But of the thousands of offerings, Williams’ go-to snack is a bag of nacho cheese triangles. He likes to pair them with an ice-cold Pepsi Zero.
“I’m old school,” Williams said unapologetically.
As head of the nation’s largest snack food company, Williams is one of the highest-ranked minority executives in corporate America.
PepsiCo Foods has 70,000 employees working at 500-plus locations throughout the United States and Canada, including 6,500 employees in the Dallas metro area working at Frito-Lay North America headquarters in Plano, its R&D center, global IT unit, multiple plants and warehouse facilities.
Williams travels extensively to meet with customers and check on operations but is based at the Frito-Lay headquarters campus on Legacy Drive in Plano. All of Frito-Lay and Quaker in North America reports to him.
But beyond his company and the upper echelon of D-FW business communities, Williams is not well known.
He says he doesn’t see the value in self-aggrandizing.
Williams has never done an in-depth interview — print or broadcast. He says he’s only doing this one because Jennifer Sampson, CEO of United Way Metropolitan Dallas, said he should.
“When Jennifer asks for something, you do it,” Williams said in his executive conference room that overlooks a lake and tree-lined walkways.
PepsiCo bought Quaker in 2001, and Williams, who had been at Quaker for four years, came along with the deal. Eighteen years later, he was promoted to chief executive of PepsiCo’s North American food business after moving steadily up the corporate ladder.
In three years as CEO, Williams has guided PepsiCo Foods through the pandemic, sent Aunt Jemima packing, helped assemble millions of dollars to support southern Dallas, and greenlighted a half-dozen innovations that delivered a first-year return on investment of at least $100 million.
In June, Frito-Lay North America signed on as a regional sponsor of the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qatar.
Williams has eyes on making subsequent sponsorships with the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 and the 2026 FIFA World Cup. He wants to make sure the 4 billion soccer fans around the world are well acquainted with Frito-Lay and Quaker products.
“This was our first foray into World Cup land,” he said. “We still have to negotiate those deals, but our intention is to go all in.”
$1 Billion in R&D
Williams is seen internally as a people-first leader who lets employees’ imaginations run free to bring ideas to life — and sometimes a quick death — at warp speed.
He invests about a billion dollars in capital every year to feed PepsiCo Foods’ innovation machine with new products, packaging and manufacturing equipment.
Frito-Lay’s 2019 acquisition of BFY was among the big payoffs. The company makes PopCorners, triangle-shaped chips that are made of popped yellow corn — not popcorn — and are strong enough for dipping.
The company has built that business significantly in the last three years and intends to expand it further.
Marisa Perez, a senior vice president at PepsiCo Foods who searches for new avenues of growth, said Williams has an undeniable magnetic pull.
“Steven knows how to be effective no matter if he is working with the front line or executives in a board room,” Perez said. “His passion and energy are contagious. Because he cares so deeply, so does everyone around him.”
Williams is a strong proponent of diversity, starting with his executive committee. In addition to Williams, it consists of 13 people, including six who are women and three who are Asian.
Brian Cornell, CEO of Target Corp., was at PepsiCo and got to know Williams after the company bought Quaker Oats in 2001.
“I immediately recognized Steven’s strong ability to identify goals, set a clear and focused agenda for reaching them, and — most importantly — the way he rallies and brings his teams along with him, each step of the way,” Cornell said.
“He is incredibly devoted to his family and always there for his friends — and anyone who knows Steven knows his big, signature Steven Williams smile.”
Williams grew up in the tiny town of Haskell, Okla. — about 45 minutes south of Tulsa — as the youngest of nine children.
His father was a pastor of a small Baptist church in a neighboring town who sold insurance when he wasn’t preaching, performing funerals or weddings. His mother was a high school cafeteria worker who cleaned houses or whatever else she could do to help the family get by.
He and his siblings were spread out by more than 25 years, so there were never more than four or five kids sharing their small three-bedroom house.
“We grew up without much,” Williams said. “But I didn’t know that we didn’t have much until I got out into the world. The upbringing that we had was special.”
One reason Williams looks back at his childhood with such warmth is his father was a relentless optimist who took in homeless people even though he had small children in the house.
“He would always turn the other cheek, regardless,” Williams said. “Think about a Black man born in 1915 in Oklahoma. He saw a lot, but he always treated everybody fairly and with respect.
“His prayer each night was that he would wake up with eyes that could see and ears that could hear.”
The most important piece of wisdom from his father that Williams took to heart: “Your attitude will determine your altitude.”
“Early on, I knew that I wanted to be a good person and do better,” Williams said. “But I never put a line in the sand and said that I wanted to do X, Y, Z. I’ve got a lot of energy, and that allows me to serve — not just myself but others.
“I don’t want to be remembered as someone who was great but because of the impact I had on other people. I firmly believe that.”
Williams isn’t into organized religion but is deeply spiritual, he said. “The two big things that always make me feel small are the mountains and the seas. You look at them, and you know that man didn’t create them.”
A Life in Retailing
Williams has been in retail since he stocked shelves and sacked groceries at the Ridley grocery store in Haskell when he was 13. He made about $2.50 an hour.
“I still think of being in the grocery business, even though we make snacks,” Williams said.
Today, he’s much better paid and has much better office digs.
According to 2022 proxy materials, Williams made $6.3 million in total compensation last year — a big raise from the previous year and an indication of the PepsiCo board’s appreciation for his accomplishments.
“Trust me. I never imagined in a million years that I’d go from that little small town, where I didn’t even know we were poor, to be here today at this amazing company,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1984, Williams worked in the retail industry until he went back to school to get his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Central Oklahoma in 1996.
“The value of hard work can’t be overstated nor can the experience of working in retail,” he said. “The world is full of different people. The quicker you learn how to deal with people who are different from you, the better off you’ll be.”
Lessons from Bentonville
Williams likes to say he did two “tours of duty” with Walmart when he worked at PepsiCo’s offices in northwest Arkansas near Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters.
What did he learn?
“Wow,” he said with a hearty laugh. “How to have thick skin.”
Williams was in his 30s when he was deployed the first time. That’s when he learned the “sundown rule.”
“If you get a call or email from somebody at Walmart, you need to have it answered by sundown,” Williams said. “You learn this sense of urgency and the pace of business.”
He says he still operates with Walmart drive and intensity.
“It was one of those times in my career when I felt that I was having the best time of my life,” Williams said. He and his wife, Christy, had a young daughter and son. “We were living in a house bigger than I ever thought we’d live in. Nice neighborhood. Great neighbors. It was one of those moments when you think, ‘Wow! This is really good. I could do this for a long time.’ But then my ambition kicked in, and I said, ‘OK, I gotta go and grow some more.’ ”
Four years later in 2012, Williams was dispatched back to Arkansas to rebuild PepsiCo’s global relationship with Walmart, which includes its U.S. stores, Sam’s Club and Walmart International.
“We had lost our way,” Williams said. “Brian [Cornell] asked me to go back to get that business back on the rail. I think it worked. My prior track record and the overall impact I was able to have on PepsiCo’s business gave the organization the confidence that I could play at this level in the company.”
John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., isn’t surprised by Williams’ success.
“He’s grounded and honest, and he’s always understood that it’s not about him,” Furner said. “He leads by bringing out the best in others.”
Divorcing Aunt Jemima
A year after he was named CEO of PepsiCo Foods, Williams had to decide what to do about Aunt Jemima.
The 130-year-old brand’s racist origins had troubled Williams for years, but the pancake mix icon was one of the world’s most recognized brand characters. She ranked right up there with the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man, according to Ad Age.
PepsiCo Foods had debated her existence for years, changing the face on the labels for the syrup and self-rising pancake mix several times from her mammy beginnings. But the caricature was still offensive to many Black people, including Williams.
After George Floyd was murdered, Williams knew she had to go.
“The summer of 2020 was extremely tense, if you remember. A tough time,” Williams said. “Frankly, it was something that we should have changed a long time ago.”
The company changed the name to Pearl Milling, the original manufacturer of the mix.
It wasn’t a resounding hit.
“For the first year and a half, it was pretty rough,” Williams said. “We lost some consumers. We gained some consumers. It’s a great asset. It’s still the No. 1 mix-and-serve brand out there. The name needed to change, and we did it.”
‘The Steven Effect’
People are hearing more about Williams these days because he’s getting more deeply involved in the community.
He was a driving force behind Southern Dallas Thrives, a partnership of Frito-Lay North America, the PepsiCo Foundation and United Way.
Its goal is to improve preschool education, provide families with nutritious meals, prepare high school students for college or a career, and help women advance in the workplace by supporting them with child care and training.
“We believe that there is an opportunity to have more focused effort in a part of the community that needs it most,” Williams said.
About 25% of PepsiCo Foods’ Dallas metro employees live or work in the southern sector, he said. “We are southern Dallas, and it needs a hand up.”
Frito-Lay has been a major corporate supporter of United Way for nearly 50 years.
Williams wanted to do his part and agreed to lead United Way’s annual capital campaign for 2024-25, the nonprofit’s 100th anniversary.
“Children, women in need — wherever I see injustice, I want to make a difference,” he said. “This isn’t about me. I don’t care about being the chairman. But I know that I can make a difference and be a catalyst for others to follow. That’s why I took this on.”
There was no arm-twisting involved, Sampson said.
“Steven’s heart immediately said yes, but he took some time to think through the responsibilities, given the demands of his job,” she said.
“Steven cares deeply about building strong communities where everyone has the access and opportunity to thrive, but he’s also realistic about the obstacles we as a community must overcome, including a budget-starved education system, lack of living-wage jobs and unequal access to health care.
“When a leader like Steven calls on other corporate leaders in North Texas, they answer the call. And they engage,” Sampson said. “I call it the Steven effect.”
Where the Magic Happens
Williams was like Willy Wonka as he gave a tour of Frito-Lay’s mostly off-limits research and development center in late August — only his secrets are New Age chips, dips, packaging and manufacturing machines.
Snack eaters, it seems, are a “promiscuous” lot who constantly want new flavors, textures and ingredients.
“That’s what these guys are great at,” he said. “This is where the magic happens.”
He took delight in entering the culinary kitchen for a photo shoot. This one of Williams’ favorite stops on his tours.
“This is awesome,” Williams said.
During a media tour two weeks later, the team whipped up a sampling that included marinated grilled tofu summer rolls with reduced fat Funyuns and charred carrot and bok choy bowls with noodles, crunched up Rold Gold pretzels and spinach.
Oh, and let’s not forget the glazed eggplant with Reduced Fat Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos.
Carol McCall, R&D director of early stage innovation and culinary, has been with Frito-Lay for 22 years and says she’s never enjoyed her job more.
“Steven’s strong sales background is amazing for really understanding the consumer, how our business works and how to reach so many different audiences with compelling innovation and really big branding strikes,” said McCall, a certified culinary health scientist. “He’s very immersive. He collaborates and builds relationships. He eats everything that we give him.”
Current flavor trends are cheesier, spicier and tangier; i.e., dill pickle and vinegar.
“You’ve got me on cheese. You’ve got me on spicy. I’m not quite there on Club Tangy,” Williams said. “We’re not a high-risk taker. We do so much consumer research that we really understand if an idea is going to be big or not. We’re not wrong very often.”
One case where Frito-Lay did miss the consumer mark was when it discontinued Fritos Bar-B-Q Flavored Corn Chips in 2018.
“People went nuts,” Williams said. “So we said, ‘OK, OK, OK. We’ll bring them back.’”
Article written by Cheryl Hall, Business columnist. Cheryl, a journalism graduate of SMU, has covered business for more than 45 years and gets her phone calls returned. She’s won numerous awards including several Katies from the Press Club of Dallas and a lifetime distinguished achievement award from the Society of American Business Editors and writers.