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In the final act of a 36-year-career in the business of snacking, Irene Rosenfeld stuck to her script.
Going through the motions of her last quarterly earnings call as chief executive of Mondelez, she detailed the sales performances of Nabisco cookies in Japan and Milka chocolate in China, the impact of hurricanes and earthquakes, and a temporary profit boost after a malware attack, before thanking her colleagues. “I’m very proud of the company we built,” she said. “The best is yet to come.”
Ms Rosenfeld, known for her bookish determination and attention to detail, navigated her way to the top of what is still largely a man’s world: her departure subtracts one from a group of only 32 women executives leading the US’s 500 largest companies.
She was given the mission of reviving Kraft, and its spun-off snacks business Mondelez, at a time when meals such as packaged macaroni and cheese have become increasingly outdated as consumers look to healthier, fresher foods and as global governments take steps to crack down on an obesity crisis.
But reflecting on her decades trying to drive sales of cookies and crackers for the world’s largest food companies, she struck an optimistic tone. “As I have witnessed the evolution of the industry, there have been cosmic changes every couple of years throughout that tenure,” she said, citing the rise of the Walmart supercentre and the disruption of ecommerce. “But I don’t believe that this is a radically different set of circumstances than we would have seen in the past.”
Ms Rosenfeld grew up in Long Island, about 20 miles from Manhattan, the daughter of Jewish accountants. She has spoken of how her roots influenced her attitude towards her career, describing Friday night shabbat services as “a wonderful respite from the hectic pace of the week”.
She earned three degrees from Cornell University, including an MBA and a doctorate in marketing. She later said her studies of consumer behaviour had helped set her apart from male colleagues, making her squarely focused on the people doing food shopping, who were often women.
The former basketball player spent most of her career at Kraft, barring a three-year stint at PepsiCo. Her acquisitive reputation was hardened by Kraft’s £11.7bn hostile takeover of the UK’s Cadbury and, two years later, she split Kraft, creating the snacks-focused Mondelez.
Ms Rosenfeld has aimed to breathe life into stagnant, decades-old American brands, increasing the cheese content in Kraft macaroni and cheese and unveiling fresh takes on company stalwarts such as Oreo Cakesters.
Along the way she has taken on foes ranging from the British government to activist investor Bill Ackman. In the UK she drew outrage over the takeover of Cadbury, closing one of its chocolate factories despite promising not to during the bid process and refusing to attend parliamentary hearings probing the deal. In a speech to a Jewish convention years later, she described the backlash as “anxiety about this very brazen American woman trying to take over a British icon”.
Known to be fiercely private, she went so far as to fly into regional airports and check into hotels under an alias during the media frenzy surrounding the Cadbury takeover. She has two daughters with her first husband, a Cornell classmate who died in 1995. She has since remarried.
She has said her athleticism helped her earn male colleagues’ respect. But in an interview with the New York Times this week, she spoke of the challenges of coming up in an industry with few other women in leadership roles.
“We had to stand up for ourselves in the face of managers who weren’t as respectful as they ought to have been,” she said. “There was always a sense that we needed to work just a little harder.”