Former CEO Brenda Barnes works the plan
’75 Augie grad focuses on ‘getting it done’ after stroke
May 30, 2012
Two years after a stroke forced her to resign as the chairman and CEO of Sara Lee Corp., Brenda Barnes, 58, is doing what she does best—working the plan. Except this time, the plan isn't focused on building brand identity in a fiercely competitive soft drink market or streamlining a Fortune 500 company with thousands of employees, billions of dollars in assets, and impatient stockholders. This one is personal.
On the day she almost died, Brenda Barnes was lifting weights, her usual routine, at a health club near her suburban Chicago home. Finished with one machine and walking to the next, she fell. Her trainer noticed she was "dragging" her left side. She immediately called an ambulance, and Barnes was on her way to a nearby hospital within minutes. "This is why I'm so lucky," she says.
She was conscious in the ambulance, providing phone numbers of family members and her doctor's name. She doesn't remember much after that. She had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke—when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, causing bleeding in the brain.
"It was really close," Barnes says. "The nurses told me later that they were looking at my children who were all at the hospital and thinking, 'These kids are going to lose their mother.' They were shocked I made it."
After surgery, Barnes' physicians induced a coma to put her into a deep sleep and relieve the swelling in her brain. When she awoke almost a week later, she was thirsty, unbelievably thirsty. She begged her family for something to drink. They were sympathetic but explained she couldn't drink anything until she could swallow.
"So I'm getting frustrated," Barnes remembers, "and I say, 'C'mon kids, if you love me, you'll get me something to drink,' and they say, 'Mom, we can't.'"
So she blurts out, "All I want is a *@^#*&# Coca-Cola."
As those who know her well will tell you, Brenda Barnes doesn't use that kind of language, and for someone who spent 22 years at PepsiCo, a Coke would never be her beverage of choice. "Now you know how delusional I was," she laughs.
The stroke left Barnes with a challenge for which no one can prepare: significant paralysis on the left side of her body, and impaired vision in her left eye. She was in the hospital for nearly six weeks, beginning the slow process of gaining enough strength to hold up her head and re-learning what most of us do every day without thinking.
"She exercised great patience, which is impressive for a woman who would always slice her fingers when chopping vegetables because she would do it too quickly," says her daughter Erin. "She had to re-learn how to do the most basic tasks: eating, brushing her teeth, putting in contacts, getting dressed. We all had to redefine our ideas of success and realize that we were most certainly in a marathon, not a sprint."
Strength of family
Throughout her rehabilitation, Barnes has displayed the same passion and drive that repeatedly landed her on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list. "I had to approach it the same way I did my work," she says. "This time I have to fix myself, and I have to get it done. So there was a plan, and I've worked hard to make it happen."
Barnes often asked her physical therapists to push her harder. "In business, she always tried to motivate and inspire people to do their best, which is exactly how she responded in therapy," Erin says. "She had such a great working relationship with all of her therapists that you could tell they genuinely wanted her to be the best that she could be, and in return, she gave them all she had to give."
Today, with many difficult days behind her, Barnes is able to walk again, albeit slowly, cautiously. "I can walk without a cane now...just can't go jogging," she says. "I don't have my left arm working yet, but it's getting a little bit better."
When she suffered her stroke, Barnes was ranked 10th on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list as the chairman and CEO of Sara Lee Corp. She announced her resignation in a statement released by Sara Lee a few weeks after her stroke. The news surprised the corporate world. Barnes was only 56 at the time. Colleagues said she always looked and seemed younger than her years.
Barnes and her husband, Randy, had agreed to a divorce a few years earlier. Their daughter Erin, who had just graduated from Notre Dame, quit her new job with Campbell's Soup to move in with her mother for a year after the stroke. She was 21 at the time.
"As we learned the extent of my mother's injury and what it would require in terms of recovery, I knew that there was no other person I would rather have with her than me," says Erin, who now lives and works in downtown Chicago. "My mother sacrificed so much for us when we were growing up, that it really was a no-brainer.
"I had a wonderful year with my mom. In fact, it was much harder re-entering the workforce and leaving her after the year we spent together than it was to make the decision to stay home to help her. Luckily I still get to go home on the weekends to be with her."
Barnes' two other children, Jeff and Brian, currently are on the West Coast; Jeff works for a private equity firm in San Francisco, and Brian will graduate from Stanford University June 17. Her children have been instrumental in her recovery. "Like all mothers, I'm so proud of my kids," says Barnes. "They were amazing when I was in the hospital and afterward. All of them have always been there for me."
Perhaps that's because Barnes has always been dedicated to her children. She made headlines in 1997 when she resigned as president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America to be at home with her children, who were 10, 8 and 7 at the time. "They weren't struggling; they were well taken care of," Barnes says. "It wasn't that they needed me, I needed them."
The Wall Street Journal broke the news, and what happened next shocked Barnes. "I'm the only person who became famous for quitting my job," she quips. She was interviewed on all the network morning shows and received calls from countless newspapers. She was in Italy a few weeks later, and a stranger in a shop stopped her to ask, "Are you the Pepsi woman?"
Some described her decision to leave such a high-level position to stay at home as a giant step backwards for women in business. Barnes never expected her personal decision would re-ignite the stereotypes and myths about women in the workplace with such fervor. Even so, during all the media interviews, including a chat with Katie Couric, Barnes never lost her composure. Today she says if she had to do it over again, she would do it "a thousand times over."
It's important to note that Barnes didn't spend all her extra time at home. After leaving Pepsi-Cola North America, a flood of unexpected opportunities landed at her door—board seats, speaking engagements, interviews, teaching positions. She had to be careful not to compromise why she resigned in the first place and end up spending 60 hours a week doing something else.
Barnes studied her options carefully, and by 1998, was serving on the boards of directors for Avon; Sears, Roebuck & Company; The New York Times; Staples, Inc.; LucasFilm, Ltd.; and Starwood Hotels. "I wanted to go where I could learn something, and where I felt my skills would be an asset," she says. "You don't want to just sit there. You want to be valuable. Otherwise, why waste the time?"
Seated beside some of the best business minds focused on industries vastly different from PepsiCo, Barnes was a student as well as a contributor. She compares it to going to graduate school, and even goes as far to say that without that experience, she would not have been ready for her eventual return to corporate life.
Staying engaged in business while spending more time with her children was the perfect scenario for Barnes at that time in her life. But, as her children became teenagers, she felt restless. Seven years into her first retirement, Barnes was teaching a class at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. An acquaintance there encouraged her to meet with her husband, a corporate recruiter for Sara Lee, a Fortune 500 company with total annual sales of about $20 billion at that time.
One thing led to another, and Sara Lee offered her the position of chief operating officer (COO) in 2004. In less than a year, she was promoted to president and CEO of Sara Lee, and then chairman a few months later.
Barnes, who had been criticized for leaving PepsiCo, was now in charge of the largest female-run Fortune 500 company. Forbes magazine describes Barnes as "the most oft-cited example in the business press of a woman who ditched her corporate career to spend time with her family, only to regain corporate power."
When she arrived at the top office at Sara Lee, the company was undergoing a substantial multi-year reorganization in which Barnes, as the COO, had played an important role in initiating. As part of the transformation, Sara Lee had organized its operation around its customers and locations to better serve the always-changing global marketplace. The foundation was being laid for a stronger, leaner Sara Lee.
Was it a tough time to be at Sara Lee?
"A really tough time."
And you didn't shy away from that...
"No, I loved it."
What Barnes enjoys most is tackling a challenge head-on, designing a long-term strategic plan and then aligning the organization to make it happen. It was exactly what attracted her to Sara Lee. No one was more aware of the pressure to turn around the company than Barnes.
"I feel all the weight of the world," she told USA TODAY in 2006. "The clock's ticking, and I'm very aware of that. It's been intense. It will continue to be intense."
Let's talk strategy
Today, Barnes is looking in from the outside, tracking her former company's progress. Sara Lee continues the restructuring plan she helped set in motion years ago. Barnes believes in the strategy, and admits, with a laugh, that she could talk for hours about Sara Lee's or any company's marketing strategies with anyone who's interested.
"My mom is the same strong, dedicated, hard-working and smart woman she was prior to her stroke," Erin says. "She now has to rely on others more than she did, but she is still fiercely independent in spirit. She has always been incredibly loving and caring, and that hasn't changed. She does laugh a bit more now. We've all learned to laugh at life a bit more."
Barnes has shared her home with her sister, Laurna, who graduated from Augustana in 1982, during the past year. Her schedule is full: visiting with friends and family, continuing her rehabilitation, keeping an eye on Sara Lee's stock price and sleeping. Rest is vital to her recovery. Gone are the 12-hour-plus workdays. No more does she rely on four to six hours of sleep a night.
"People often ask what I would have done differently in my career, and in my life, and I always say 'nothing' because I don't know if the outcome would be the same," Barnes says. "Things are good for me. I've had a nice life so far."
Erin says her mother has never questioned why the stroke happened. Instead, she focuses on how to make the best of the situation, which is all about working the plan.
"We have been lucky to have the support of wonderful friends and family," Erin adds, "and we are looking forward to many more years together...laughing at my mom's terrible jokes."
(A PDF version of this article is available.)
Barnes gives $1 million gift to