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America's Best Leaders: Indra Nooyi, Pepsico Ceo

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America's Best Leaders: Indra Nooyi, Pepsico Ceo

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  • December 2012
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She played lead guitar in an all-women rock band in her hometown of Madras, India. She was a cricket player in college. She sang karaoke at corporate gatherings. Today, Indra Nooyi presides over 185,000 employees in nearly 200 countries as the chief executive of PepsiCo. And she still performs on stage at company functions.

Nooyi came to the United States in 1978 at age 23 to earn her M.B.A. at Yale, where she worked as a dorm receptionist—opting for the graveyard shift because it paid an extra 50 cents per hour. Her parents had told her she was out of her mind and should have stayed in India and gotten married. "I always had this urge, this desire, this passion," she once explained, to "settle in the United States," where she is now the married mother of two daughters.

When Nooyi joined PepsiCo in 1994, it was as the company's chief strategist. From the start, she helped executives make some tough decisions. Seeing less future in fast food, she moved the company to shed KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell in 1997. Betting instead on beverages and packaged food, she helped engineer a$3 billion acquisition of Tropicana in 1998 and a $14 billion takeover in 2001 of Quaker Oats, maker of Gatorade. The moves proved prescient choices. Company earnings soared, and so, too, did her stature.

By 2006, Nooyi was one of just two finalists to succeed CEO Steven Reinemund as leader of one of the world's best-known brands. After getting the nod, Nooyi flew to visit the other contender. "Tell me whatever I need to do to keep you," she implored. They had worked together for years, both loved music, and Nooyi was persuasive, offering to boost her competitor's compensation to nearly match her own. He agreed to serve as her right-hand man, creating her version of a team of rivals.

A caring CEO. Though raised on cricket, she has become an expert on New York Yankees statistics and Chicago Bulls teamwork. Nooyi is a master of substance, knowing PepsiCo's product lines and...