Pepsi Seeks Skills of Military Veterans

Veterans are leaders who think on their feet.

October 29, 2019

PURCHASE, N.Y.—Before managing a Frito-Lay factory, Toby Johnson flew an Apache helicopter during the invasion of Iraq. “It’s kind of crazy because I really had no background running a plant,” she said.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, what Johnson had were leadership skills from the military that Frito-Lay’s parent, PepsiCo, actively seeks in employees. This year, the Purchase, N.Y.-based food-and-beverage titan has hired more than 1,200 veterans in the U.S., up from nearly 1,000 in 2018. That brings the total number of former service members working for PepsiCo in the U.S. to more than 4,500, or roughly 4% of its domestic workforce.

RecruitMilitary and Military Friendly, two veterans hiring organizations, have recognized PepsiCo as one of the best for employing former service members. In Iraq, Ms. Johnson, who is now 43, was part of the initial invasion force and traveled more than 400 miles across the desert to set up a base of operations at Baghdad International Airport. After serving nearly a year in Iraq, she finished her service in the U.S. in 2005.

Johnson went on to study at Harvard Business School. A summer internship with PepsiCo led to her first job managing a factory for Frito-Lay Inc. in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. For the past 12 years, Ms. Johnson has worked in multiple divisions and is now back at Frito-Lay as vice president of sales operations. She is also one of the founders of Valor, PepsiCo’s employee group for veterans, which started in 2010.

Veterans know how to think on their feet and work as part of a team, all while accomplishing the mission. These are traits that lend themselves well to leadership success, said Jim Farrell, senior vice president of operations at PepsiCo beverages and a former U.S. Army officer. He believes companies should dismiss stereotypes about veterans blindly following orders.

“I think there might be a perception out there that in the military it’s almost like robotic,” said Farrell, who was stationed in Germany and deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a peacekeeping mission in 1995. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Veterans also offer a diverse pool of talent, one that is expected to get even more diverse in coming years. By 2037, roughly 33% of veterans in the U.S. will be ethnic minorities, compared with 25% now, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The number of male veterans is expected to decline 34% by 2037, while the share of female veterans is projected to rise by 13%.

“You have people of color, you have women, pretty much every ethnic group you can think of is represented among veterans,” said Johnson.

PepsiCo has had a long history of hiring veterans. At least four of its chief executives have been ex-military, including Don Kendall, a World War II Navy pilot and the first CEO after Pepsi-Cola Co. merged with Frito-Lay to form PepsiCo in the mid-1960s.  As many as 245,000 veterans leave the military every year, and the transition to civilian life can be difficult due to the mental and physical toll war takes, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

Farrell says PepsiCo’s veterans group helps members ease back into civilian life and provides mentorship. It regularly hosts outside events, including a recent baby shower for 40 military moms. When the Navy comes to New York City for Fleet Week, the company sends buses full of employees to serve lunch to the sailors and visit with them.