Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Trading 30,000 Staff For 3 Kids

Family Business

By Shelley Donald CoolidgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 1997


It's late on a Friday afternoon, and Brenda Barnes can finally see an end to the madness.

Skip to next paragraph

The president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America has been up since 4 a.m. giving interviews and making the rounds on the morning news shows. The "Today" show even showed up at her house to film her three children.

Her decision, just 48 hours earlier, to relinquish the helm of a $7 billion enterprise - and her ranking as one of the country's top women executives - in order to be at home with her children sent a lightning bolt through the business world.

It has also enlivened one of the most pressing workplace debates of the decade: how working parents balance demanding careers and equally demanding family lives.

The attention, she admits, has been surprising.

"I've been stunned, absolutely stunned," says Ms. Barnes, who for some four years has started her day at 3:30 a.m. to juggle it all. "But it struck a chord because everyone is struggling with the same thing. We're all on a frenetic pace, and everybody wants time. It is all about time."

Barnes is not the only executive to jump off the fast track. CBS Sports program director Susan Kerr and former American Express president Jeffrey Stiefler both walked away from high-profile jobs two years ago to spend more time with their families.

Many agree these executives underline what the rest of working America wants but lacks the financial freedom to express.

For Ms. Barnes, a 22-year veteran of PepsiCo Inc., the decision to go from high-powered executive to homemaker has been anything but easy.

"The job I have is a wonderful job and exciting and thrilling," she says. "The people here are wonderful, and I get a lot of satisfaction. So I love what I do. But it's not a bad choice, to leave one thing you love to go to another thing you love."

And demands from the "other thing" were adding up. The years of missed birthday parties, and the fact that her children - ages 7, 8, and 10 - seem to need her more now than ever.

"I found when they were babies - not that you ever love leaving them - but it didn't seem to be as critical a time as when they are going through the trials and tribulations of growing up," she says, nursing a Pepsi. When they get older, the picture changes.

"They want to talk to you,' she says. "But they may not want to talk during the 10 minutes you happen to have."

Barnes started contemplating a move out of the corporate world more than two years ago. She jokes that she's talked about leaving so many times that her kids and husband didn't believe her when she finally made the choice.

When she took the job as North American chief about 18 months ago, she warned long-time boss Craig Weatherup, Pepsi's worldwide beverage chief, that she might not stay.

Several months ago, she decided to do it (although she probably would not have made the decision had she not made CEO). Pepsi-Cola was on track (1996 operating profits of $1.43 billion, sales of $7.73 billion) and her kids weren't getting any younger.

Again Pepsi tried to persuade her to stay. Her bosses offered less-demanding responsibilities or a leave of absence.

"Anything I would have offered I think Pepsi would have listened to," Barnes says. "But after you have the big job, for me psychologically, it would be hard to do something less."

* * *

Barnes prides herself on being an all-around soccer mom and being there for her three children. For a high-powered executive, with 70- hour weeks and frequent travel, that's some kind of juggling act.

To make it work, she sets the alarm for 3:30 a.m., and starts working from home. At 7 a.m., she gets her children up, with help from a nanny, eats breakfast with them, and heads to the office.

At 7 p.m., she heads home to see her kids and tuck them into bed.

Weekends belong, 100 percent, to family. That means no work - at least not while everyone's awake. She admits to a few early hours either Saturday or Sunday morning. "I don't talk about that, but I do it," she whispers.

"You end up making choices, and what's not all that important you just eliminate. So you cut back on your sleep and on things for yourself," she says. "If you want to play tennis and go to the beauty salon and go shopping, then you probably can't have three kids and have the kind of job I have."

At the same time Barnes's husband has been on his own fast track. Until last April, he was treasurer of PepsiCo but resigned to spend the summer with the Barnes kids.

For nine years, they lived in separate cities, commuting back and forth. And Barnes can rattle off every long-distance combination: Dallas to Houston; Dallas to New York; New York to Louisville; New York to St. Louis; Wichita, Kan., to New York; Wichita to Dallas; then Dallas back to New York.