Cornell University Johnson at Cornell University


Profile in Leadership –
Mark Pettie, MBA '81: In Search of the Next Great Ideas

By Merrill Douglas

markpettie Mark Pettie, MBA '81, chairman and CEO of Prestige Brands, maker of household-name products such as Comet, Spic and Span, Murine, Prell, and many others.

One thing Mark Pettie has learned over the years is that when you're seeking inspiration, you have to open your ears.

"I really do pride myself on being a good listener," says Pettie, chairman and chief executive officer of Prestige Brands. "I'll never have all the right answers. But I do have the ability to synthesize quality input from people and translate that into timely decisions to drive business ahead."

He also has learned that you must open your mind, striking out on new paths in search of fresh perspectives. That's what he was thinking in 1991, when he asked his boss at Kraft Foods for a development assignment. Then a senior financial executive with Kraft's Dinners & Enhancers division, Pettie figured that trying a different discipline – maybe sales, operations, or marketing – would bolster his skills, helping him to do an even better job when he returned to a position in finance.

But when his boss sponsored Pettie for a marketing assignment as business director for Kraft's starches category, that detour became a major turning point.

"I loved it – having my hands more firmly on the center of the wheel that was driving business results," Pettie says. After a year or so, he made a long-term commitment to marketing.

Pettie's stint at marketing Minute Rice and Stove Top stuffing was just the first of many career experiments that he has conducted in his quest for fresh business insights. Such forays – which also included a year in sales at Kraft and nearly three years heading the Pollio Italian Cheese Corporation – helped instill a basic value that guides Pettie as a leader: seek inspiration from every possible source.

"Nobody has a premium on the next great idea," he says. "It can come from finance. It can come from sales. It's not the province of the marketing community exclusively in consumer products, by any means."

So Pettie solicits input from all members of his leadership team, even on subjects outside their areas of expertise. "I really do believe that encouraging that kind of thought diversity is where you're going to get your best, next great ideas."

Pettie's pursuit of the next great idea has propelled him through 23 years at General Foods – and, after their merger, Kraft Foods – through his watch as president of ConAgra Foods' foods group, and right into his present position at the helm of Prestige Brands, whose well-known products include Comet, Spic and Span, Chloraseptic, Murine, and Prell.

Although Pettie didn't always aim to become a corporate leader, he aspired to a position of power from an early age. As an adolescent devouring the political novels of Allen Drury, he mapped out a future in Washington. "I was going to go to law school, become a lawyer, leverage that into a U.S. Senate seat and then springboard that experience into a position on the Supreme Court bench," he says.

But undergraduate coursework at Binghamton University convinced him that business was more to his taste than law. He earned a degree in accounting, believing that offered a solid foundation for a corporate career. After a year of work in a commercial bank, Pettie focused on finance at the Johnson School, and he did his summer internship in banking. It wasn't until his second year, when job interviews began, that he started looking farther afield.

Compared with the opportunities at a company like General Foods, banking careers all looked pretty much the same, Pettie says. "You're trying to sell money in one way, shape, or form, and the services behind it. Whereas the General Foods offerings were tangible consumer products that I'd grown up with." Pettie visited the General Foods campus in White Plains, N.Y., liked what he saw, and took a job as a financial analyst for topping brands Cool Whip and Dream Whip.

The move to marketing in 1991 sharpened Pettie's notion of the kind of work he loved. When Kraft named him vice president and general manager of its Pollio Italian Cheese Corporation, that opportunity further refined his ambitions. Run as a free-standing organization, Pollio had its own infrastructure for manufacturing, distribution, sales, and other functions. Pettie enjoyed the freedom that arrangement afforded, along with the chance to influence an entire business. "That was probably the formative experience that convinced me I wanted to be the bigger fish in a smaller pond."

He's found just such a pond in Prestige Brands. Formed in 2004 through the merger of three companies, Prestige has grown into a $325 million business, largely through acquisitions. That's no longer the main strategy. Since Pettie arrived, his major mission has been to boost the company's performance and foster sustainable, organic growth.

"I'll never have all the right answers. But I do have the ability to synthesize quality input from people and translate that into timely decisions to drive business ahead."

Pettie and his team developed a long-range plan based on seven key activities: analyze the portfolio of products to determine which to drive and which to de-emphasize, strengthen distribution, optimize the marketing mix, focus innovation on fewer new products with greater potential, strengthen the international product line, reduce costs, and simplify the supply chain.

From his first days at Prestige, Pettie has made the pursuit of the company's goals a team effort. "He set up a formalized leadership team that meets on a weekly basis," says Jean Boyko, senior vice president, science and technology. "I do a one-on-one with him once a week as well, where there's no set agenda," she says. "It's kind of open: 'Let's discuss whatever's on your mind' – either his mind or my mind."

"His style is extraordinarily collaborative, very motivational and positive," says Sharon McLenahan, now director of emerging brands at Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee. As vice president of marketing for dairy snacks at ConAgra Foods, McLenahan worked with Pettie during his term as president of the dairy foods group.

"Whatever situation we might find ourselves in, positive or challenging, he was terrific at focusing the team on the issue and moving forward, and moving it in a positive direction," McLenahan says.

Passion for his work keeps Pettie focused on goals and the steps it will take to reach them. "I always draw up a list of the top ten or 12 priorities that the organization needs to focus on for a given year to achieve the performance benchmarks we've set up for ourselves," he says. "I'm relentless about that, and passionate about making sure that everybody, regardless of where they are in the organization, is working every day on something that is connected very obviously to one or more of those priorities."

Pettie's high expectations, his straightforward manner and his desire to listen to all points of view make him effective in the face of a challenge, says Jim Kelly, senior vice president of marketing at Prestige. Take last year, when the Food and Drug Administration started questioning the safety of over-the-counter cough and cold remedies for children two years of age and under. In response, Prestige voluntarily pulled two products from the market. Like other companies taking similar steps, it stood to lose revenue after that move. So Pettie pulled together his team to find a solution.

"We did lose that volume, but we had an action plan put together fairly quickly to offset it," Kelly says. Pettie kept a cool head and a steady hand throughout the discussions. "He just got directly to the issues. 'What are the issues, what are the solutions? Let's debate those and get on with it.'"

McLenahan recalls how Pettie moved into action when he learned of a major financial challenge at ConAgra. "The first thing he did was bring the team together." He outlined the challenge and explained what the business needed to accomplish, "always with a smile on his face, and in a very positive way. No finger-pointing." she says. Then he started going around the table, "making sure everybody was heard, making sure everybody had their questions answered, making sure everybody was focused in terms of what to do next."

One episode that honed Pettie's leadership skills occurred in the early 1990s when, on a special assignment for Kraft, he led a management team in shutting down an operation at a remote location. Pettie had to let some employees go and persuade others to move with their business units to other cities. Then, just as employees transferred to one of the new locations were settling in, Kraft decided to put their business on the market.

"You can imagine the fallout that I had to deal with," Pettie says. Not only did he have to tell the recruits about the upcoming sale, but he had to persuade them to do their best work, to polish up the business for potential buyers.

Aided by two capable staff members, Pettie kept the employees motivated by appealing to their strong professional sense. He reminded them that doing their best work would stand them in good stead whether they remained with Kraft or moved on. "That taught me an awful lot about how you lead people through tough times," he says. At the same time, he had to make sure Kraft took good care of those employees once the sale closed. "It was a real human resources crucible," he says.

Lou Nieto, president of the refrigerated foods group at ConAgra, often saw Pettie in action with employees when the two co-managed a ConAgra facility in Naperville, Ill. "Mark was very people-focused. He worked hard to ensure that we had high morale and engagement by our employee population," he says.

Pettie relishes the place he's reached in his career, but someday, he says, he might set off on at least one more exploration.

As an undergraduate, Pettie broadcast the news on his campus radio station. Twenty-two years ago, he competed on "Wheel of Fortune." ("I got some lovely snack tables, a television, and some silverware," he recalls.) Someday, he'd like to get back on the airwaves.

"In my next life, I have a keen interest in getting involved in broadcast, whether it's radio or television," Pettie says. "That's a long time from now," he adds. "Just as a hobby. It's always been an interest of mine, and someday I'll indulge myself."

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