Ilene GordonBy Jenna Goudreau, Forbes Staff
Ilene Gordon, 59, has never done anything simply because she was expected to. When she was in junior high, she lobbied the principal to take shop class with the boys rather than bake muffins with the girls. In high school, she was the only girl to take physics, and she later went on to attend MIT when the student ratio was 10:1 women. That was all good preparation for a pioneering career in the food and packaging industries, serving as the first female officer of Tenneco and leading $6.5 billion Alcan Packaging from Paris-all while raising two kids in Chicago.
Today, Gordon is CEO of publicly traded Ingredion, formerly Corn Products, a global ingredient manufacturer that works with food companies like Nestle, Kraft and Unilever, and one of just 21 women leading a Fortune 500 company. Since taking the helm in 2009, she has implemented a new strategy, grown the market cap from $2.2 billion to over $5 billion, and increased sales to $6.5 billion. She recently sat down with me to discuss the energized company, how she got to where she is today and the secret to "having it all."
Jenna Goudreau: Ingredion has seen explosive growth since you came in, with the stock rising from $25 in 2009 to $66 today. How did you kick start the sleepy, century-old company?
Ilene Gordon: The board was looking to take the company to the next level. It had been very successful with regional strengths, but the global world was changing, so our company needed to change. The previous CEO was retiring, and the strategy hadn't been refreshed in years. We needed direction, so we laid out the strategy as an ingredient provider. Within a year of my joining, we ended up making a major acquisition of a company called National Starch, at $1.3 billion [in sales]. With corn products, sweeteners and specialty starches together, we could go to food companies and help design products that the young consumers like. Companies like Unilever, Nestle, Kraft and Mondelez are all looking for those solutions-food that tastes good but is lower in calories.
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You also changed the name from Corn Products to Ingredion. What did that give you?
We re-branded because we're not a corn company; we are an ingredient company. It didn't describe who we were. Both Corn Products and National Starch had 100-year-old names, but it's all about the next generation.
Is it scary to come into a legacy business and make major changes and take it in a new direction?
It's very exciting. I like challenges, and I surround myself with people who feel the same way. You can't sit still in today's world. We had done our homework. The challenge was to put everyone together, get everyone excited, and reorganize the company so that we focused on our customers (rather than get hung up on the inside, which a lot of companies do). I spent a lot of time communicating and laying out a plan. It went flawlessly.
Well I'd imagine not much would scare you at this point. You've been a pioneer most of your career, as the first female officer at Tenneco, and now as one of just 21 women running America's 500 biggest companies.
It was in my makeup to want to achieve, to be considered as smart as the men. Go back to the 1960s: In junior high the women took home ec-sewing and cooking-and the boys took shop class. I just wanted to do things that were different, to compete with the boys. In seventh grade, I said: No, I want to take shop. I had to go to the principal and ask. The principal said: I guess there's no reason why you can't. But nobody had ever asked before. Back when I was at MIT, the ratio of undergrad students was 10:1 women-so just 10% of the undergrads in my class of 1975 were women.
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I've noticed that a lot of top businesswomen have science backgrounds. How did you make the jump from math and science to business?
I went to MIT thinking I'd be a high-school math teacher, but I met all these women who were going to be Ph.D.s. I realized I could have a career and be successful. I got my masters from [MIT's] Sloan [School of Management], and then I was hired to consult for Boston Consulting Group. About a year after being there they wanted to expand into Europe. I volunteered to move. That transition to consulting led me to the packaging industry, and because of my science background, I was good at analyzing problems. I was able to learn about manufacturing and learn how to create value.
As one of so few women running major companies, what do you think was the secret to your success?
A lot of women go into staff roles. I was head of strategy for Tenneco's packaging division, and I had a mentor who said: You're smart and good with people; you ought to run a business. The skill set is different. You have to motivate others. [It was] having a mentor who pushed me to leave the safe staff role and into line management. Most women would like that chance, but perhaps companies haven't provided it or women have shied away from the risk.
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And you have two kids, so you must have figured out the "have-it-all" conundrum.
In my mind, there was never a choice of career vs. family. I was going to do both. I had my kids in my young 20s. My husband was very busy traveling as a consultant, so we hired a lot of good help. I'm a big believer in delegation and being organized. Every Sunday night was family night. We'd have dinner and lay out a plan for the week and month. Sometimes my daughter would say: I have a big paper due, and I'd like your input. I would copy the chapter she was working on, take it with me, and call her from the road so we could talk about it. Once, I gave her a spelling test from the back of a taxi. It was a lot of energy and you have to be willing to do it, but I never thought for a moment it wasn't possible. You have to have a plan. We had a backup nanny, and a backup to the backup. My attitude was: We'll figure it out.
What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?
Get the masters degree. Because 20 years down the road, whoever has the masters will have the advantage. Get international experience early in your career. Then get the operating, line experience. Don't just stay in staff roles. Find a mentor who will give you advice, who's not emotionally involved and isn't going to be biased. People will need different mentors at different stages in their careers. Maybe early on it's someone who helps push you up in an organization, and maybe later on it's someone from the outside giving you advice. Then, get out there. Get your hands dirty. Interact with people to understand the challenges of different people in the company.
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Ilene GordonBy Jenna Goudreau, Forbes Staff