Leading with resilience: An interview with PepsiCo Foods Canada president Cara Keating

Keating is recognized for her efforts to champion and empower women, having recently delivered the keynote at the Star Women in Convenience Awards Celebration.
Michelle Warren
Editor & Associate Publisher, Convenience Store News Canada
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Cara Keating PepsiCo leaning against a brick wall

Cara Keating is president of PepsiCo Foods Canada, leading the Canadian businesses of Frito-Lay North America and Quaker Foods North America. A 15-year PepsiCo veteran, Keating has a wealth of experience across the channel, having also led the company’s national convenience and gas businesses. She has built a reputation as a talented people leader and passionate supporter of PepsiCo’s diversity and engagement agenda. Keating is also recognized for her efforts to champion and empower women, having recently delivered the keynote at the Star Women in Convenience Awards Celebration. She spoke about ‘Leading with resilience’—an apt topic for the times we’re in—and later took some time to answer questions about navigating change. 

Tell me a bit about the changes to your business in the last 10 months?

CK: Over the past 10 months, we’ve faced an incredible amount of change in our business and marketplace.  While we haven’t changed our fundamental operations, there have been countless changes in how we approach our daily work to keep our people safe, while ensuring that Canadians have access to the foods and snacks they love. 

I’m proud of how quickly we moved to implement safety measures across our business.  Keeping our people safe has been at the heart of every decision we’ve made throughout this crisis.  We have a sizeable frontline population with manufacturing plants and sales associates across the country, who are the engine of our business.  We implemented social distancing and hand washing practices early and reinforced their importance often, and it’s been working.

In the early days, we saw slower than usual traffic in C&G, while large format was experiencing spikes in buying patterns with fewer trips, but significantly larger basket sizes.  In response, we took a number of steps to better manage our inventories. First, we reduced our SKU assortment to simplify our manufacturing and ensure that our core products were always available. Customer sales data also became critically important to help us anticipate inventory needs and supply customers with the right amount of product.  

Being a large global organization, we have been able to leverage PepsiCo resources and lessons available to us from our colleagues around the world, which has also helped us navigate this crisis.

In your SWIC keynote, you talked about resilience: How does that apply here?

CK: I’m extremely proud of our front-line teams and how they’ve navigated this pandemic. There was a lot of variation in buying patterns across customers, which made it challenging to manage inventory because it was unpredictable.  Our front-line sales teams certainly felt this, as our reps were making constant adjustments to inventory levels.  And our front-line manufacturing teams were working hard around the clock to support this demand.  This pandemic put a lot of pressure on our front-line teams, who worked hard to stay on top of the needs of our customers and consumers. And all along they were navigating their own personal safety, along with that of their families, their colleagues and their community.

At the same time, our office-based associates have been working from home since March and I’m proud to say that we haven’t missed a beat in our day-to-day operations.  That said, we know it’s been challenging for our people to navigate their new normal, managing the demands of work, home and family in the work-from-home environment. We’ve been working hard to stay close to our people and provide physical, mental and financial health resources to support them when they need us most. 

How is your brand working with convenience operators to support their business? Are there particular initiatives you’d like to highlight?

CK: Our teams have had to be flexible and adapt to the new landscape in a number of ways:

1.    Service:  We are thrilled that our field teams have been able to maintain their high service standards throughout the pandemic.  We understand new customers are turning to convenience stores during these times and we want to do our part to ensure that they have a positive experience and that our shelves are fully stocked and ready for business.

2.    Assortment:  With the mix shifting from single serve to take home, we have adjusted our permanent and temporary displays to ensure we are in stock on our top selling SKUs.  Also, as consumers became more focused on healthy living, we increased our distribution on wellness-focused products, like Bare and Off the Eaten Path.

3.    Value:  With the increase in basket sizes, we adapted our promotion strategies to offer greater value when you purchase more units (adding a 3/$X layer to our typical 2/$X promotions).  We also introduced larger pack sizes to offer more value to consumers.

From a head office standpoint, our teams are working closely with category managers to continue to move the business forward and ensure that we have strong plans in place for a fast start in 2021.

As a leader, what have you learned during this period?

CK: I’ve learned the importance of empathy.  Everyone is facing different challenges and circumstances—supporting our people and their personal needs has never been more critical. I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with associates across all levels, roles and geographies to understand their needs and what’s important to them to ensure we’re providing the right information and resources to navigate this pandemic. I’ve also encouraged our leaders to stay close to their people and be flexible in how we work so our associates feel empowered to make the necessary decisions for themselves and their families. At the same time, we have associates who are living alone and facing mental health struggles due to physical isolation, so we’re also focused on fostering connections and support networks amongst our employees.  Mental health is a major focus for us and will continue to be as we battle this pandemic.

Finally, as we move into 2021, what are you excited about in terms of the business, particularly on the convenience side?

CK: We’re excited about getting off to a fast start in 2021. Innovation is going to be a huge play for us in 2021, as we shifted our focus to core SKUs for 2020. We have great innovation coming out for the Super Bowl and then a jam-packed front half with lots of new SKUs. We’re also excited to see the growth of e-commerce within the C&G channel, with several banners developing partnerships in this space. We’re excited to partner with all customers to develop this great new opportunity for growth.  Finally, we are excited to bring you a more customized approach to assortment. We have invested in technology that will enable our teams to tailor their product offering based on the demographics of each location.



This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Convenience Store News Canada

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