Donald Kendall, Pepsi’s Chief During the Cola Wars, Dies at 99
Donald M. Kendall, a former soda salesman who as the head of Pepsi challenged Coke in a worldwide cola war and personally promoted his brand as the first American consumer product made and marketed in the Soviet Union, died on Saturday at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 99.
His family announced his death in a statement.
Raised on a Washington State dairy farm and never completing a college degree, Mr. Kendall spent 44 years with Pepsi, beginning as a bottling plant worker in New Rochelle, N.Y., and then a fountain syrup salesman in Atlantic City. Prematurely gray since high school, he never found youth to be a handicap in rising swiftly through the company’s ranks.
He was named vice president of national sales at 31, then, beginning in 1957, headed the company’s international division, doubling the number of countries in which the brand was sold by the time he left that post in 1963 to become Pepsi-Cola’s president and chief executive at 42. He served as chairman for two decades, until 1991, five years after he had retired as chief executive at 65.
During his tenure he launched an audacious advertising campaign called “the Pepsi challenge” — blind taste tests suggesting that Coca-Cola aficionados actually favored the flavor of Pepsi. When Coca-Cola’s reformulated “New Coke” was tepidly received by consumers in 1985, he capitalized on his rival’s disappointment by promoting Pepsi even more. He gambled that consumers would take to Diet Pepsi while Coke was more tentatively marketing its sugar-free formula as Tab. He sought to woo “the Pepsi Generation” by spending a fortune on a Michael Jackson advertising blitz. And he bought 7Up, in 1986.
Mr. Kendall expanded Pepsi into food production by merging it with Frito-Lay in 1965 under the name PepsiCo and acquiring fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. (PepsiCo later shed those properties.) Under his watch, the company’s annual revenue grew to $7.6 billion from $200 million.
In a statement, Ramon Laguarta, the current chairman and chief executive, called Mr. Kendall “the architect of the PepsiCo family.”
As a politically-astute chief executive of a global corporation, Mr. Kendall cultivated a close personal and professional relationship with Richard M. Nixon, who early on represented Pepsi as a lawyer and in 1965 played the piano at Mr. Kendall’s second wedding, at the Pierre hotel in Manhattan.
The Nixon connection produced two foreign-policy coups.
In 1959, Mr. Kendall was seeking to open a Pepsi plant in the Soviet Union and saw an opportunity at an exhibition of American products being held in Moscow that year (the same exhibition where Vice President Richard M. Nixon conducted his celebrated “kitchen debate” with the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev).
At Mr. Kendall’s request, Nixon steered Khrushchev to the Pepsi display.
“I went to Nixon the night before, at the embassy, and told him I was in a lot of trouble at home because people thought I was wasting Pepsi’s money coming to a Communist country,” Mr. Kendall told The New York Times in 1999. “I told him that somehow, I had to get a Pepsi in Khrushchev’s hand.”
He succeeded. Mr. Kendall poured Pepsi into a paper cup for the premier, who promptly declared the beverage “very refreshing.”
“Cola Captivates Soviet Leaders,” The New York Times headline proclaimed.
A manufacturing agreement was finally signed in 1973 after both parties overcame currency exchange complications: PepsiCo accepted Soviet-made Stolichnaya vodka as payment instead of rubles.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing in the late 1980s, PepsiCo struck another deal: It would get to open two-dozen plants behind the corroding Iron Curtain by agreeing to buy 17 Russian submarines and three surplus warships for scrap.
According to government documents and the 2007 book “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the C.I.A.,” by Tim Weiner, a former Times reporter, in 1970 Mr. Kendall introduced Nixon to a Chilean media magnate and Pepsi bottling-plant owner who was seeking Washington’s help in overthowing President Salvador Allende, who had been democratically elected in Chile on a Marxist platform. Mr. Allende was deposed in 1973 by the military and replaced by the dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Donald McIntosh Kendall was born on March 16, 1921, on a dairy farm in Sequim (pronounced squim), Wash., to Carroll and Charlotte Kendall.
He enrolled in Western Kentucky State Teachers College (now Western Kentucky University) in Bowling Green on a football scholarship but left to enlist in the Navy as a bomber pilot during World War II. He was shot down near the Philippines, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and joined Pepsi-Cola after returning home in 1947.
His first marriage, to Anne McDonell, ended in divorce. In 1965 he married Sigrid Rüdt von Collenberg, who is known as Bim, a German baroness. In addition to her, he is survived by their two children, Kent and Donald Kendall Jr.; two children from his first marriage, Edward and Donna Kendall; and 10 grandchildren.
During his eventful tenure with PepsiCo, Mr. Kendall opened China to the company’s products and in 1970 moved its headquarters from New York City to a sprawling campus in suburban Purchase, N.Y., designed by Edward Durell Stone. Its hallmark is a public garden dotted with works by renowned 20th-century sculptors.
Outside the company, Mr. Kendall promoted international trade as chairman of the United States Chamber of Commerce and other business groups and, as chairman of the American Ballet Theater Foundation, recruited Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1980 to be its artistic director.
Mr. Kendall was an early champion of diversity. In 1962, Pepsi appointed Harvey C. Russell Jr. as the first Black vice president of a major United States corporation, prompting a boycott of Pepsi products by the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Kendall countered by naming another Black corporate executive.
Above all he was a company patriot. He painted his home mailbox in Pepsi colors, downed a Pepsi for breakfast and, while choking on the word C-o-k-e, thrived on the corporate rivalry.
“They brought out the best in us,” he once said. “If there wasn’t a Coca-Cola, we would have had to invent one, and they would have had to invent Pepsi.”