Will Indra Nooyi Leave Pepsi?

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Whenever a big new job opens up just about anywhere in the world, Indra Nooyi’s name enters the frame. Last year, scuttlebutt in Mumbai had the PepsiCo chief executive returning to India to run the powerful Tata Group. Earlier this year, Nooyi was floated as a candidate to run the World Bank. Now her recent recruitment of a former White House and Treasury official to Pepsi’s ranks has some pegging her for a big job in Washington.

As flattering as this sounds, the chatter makes an already challenging job more difficult. Nooyi, who is determined to stay put, is still working to convince shareholders to back her vision for an integrated Gatorade-to-Doritos snack-food giant. Not that her reign has been a disaster. Since becoming the first female to lead Pepsi in late 2006, the company’s earnings per share have gained around 36 percent, and its sales have nearly doubled to $65 billion. The problem is that the stock has done relatively poorly—gaining just around 10 percent during that time. For comparison, Coca-Cola has done nearly 10 times better.

Investors just haven’t given the high-margin, cash-generating soft-drink business sufficient credit. In part that’s because Nooyi has actively worked to dispel the notion that Pepsi is a junk-food pusher, emphasizing its healthier victuals. Yet its greatest recent successes have been products like a 24-ounce can of Mountain Dew. As a result, Pepsi suffers from what brokerage Sanford C. Bernstein called “a tale of two companies” problem. That firm reckoned splitting food from soft drinks would create more than $10 billion of extra wealth for shareholders.

As a consequence, when Relational Investors—a hedge fund run by activist investor Ralph Whitworth—popped up with a $600 million position in Pepsi two months ago, Wall Street was atwitter with talk of a Pepsi breakup. So far, Whitworth has not said much about his aspirations. But he has pushed for breakups before, occasionally fighting to replace corporate directors with his own representatives to make that happen.

True, a breakup doesn’t have to spell the demise of a CEO. Kraft’s Irene Rosenfeld—who once ran Pepsi’s Frito-Lay arm—even championed one. But a public battle with an uppity investor that galvanized Pepsi’s shareholders against her would undermine Nooyi’s leadership. And caving to a breakup would be a repudiation of her “power of one” strategy.

Given this backdrop, a position working for a reelected President Barack Obama (she is a Democrat) might appeal to Nooyi as a chance for a graceful exit. But the better option for her manifold career possibilities is to stick it out and close the performance gap with Coke.

That will require learning to love Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos washed down with Mountain Dew. It may not be a recipe for good health, but unqualified success is always the best résumé stuffer.