Richard Lenny '77
Brand management leader credits ‘premier’ MBA experience as key to his success
By Rebecca Lindell
Richard Lenny '77 has spent much of his career at the helm of some of the world's most iconic food companies.
Hershey, Nabisco, Pillsbury, Kraft — each has been the focus of Lenny's lifelong passion for consumer products and brands. "I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, a time when advertising played such a key role" in the public mind, Lenny recalls. "I was intrigued by new products, how they were promoted and how their benefits were communicated."
As a college student, Lenny entertained the notion of an advertising career. A cousin in the field told him to start on the client side, in brand management. So Lenny majored in marketing at Georgia State University and found his interest piqued. "I realized there was a much broader strategic approach to building a brand than simply running advertising or consumer promotions," Lenny says.
After graduation, Lenny spent two years doing marketing research for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. However, he knew that to pursue a career in brand management, an MBA was mandatory. When it was time to apply to graduate school, he searched for the institution that offered the most exceptional faculty, curriculum and training in the marketing field.
Just one place fit the bill, Lenny says: the Kellogg School of Management.
"It was the only graduate school to which I applied," he says. "I wanted to go to the premier MBA school for marketing expertise, and that was Kellogg. Even in the 1970s, it had an exceptional reputation for brand management and marketing."
Lenny would graduate from Kellogg with honors in marketing and finance, drawing inspiration from professors such as Brian Sternthal, Alice Tybout, Sid Levy and Richard M. Clewett. The school's rigorous academic program instilled a "disciplined thought process" and collaborative skills that have proven instrumental in his success, he says.
After graduating from Kellogg, Lenny joined Kraft Foods, Inc. where he moved steadily through the sales and marketing ranks. He spent 18 years at the company, which he says offered ample opportunity to develop his skills. In the early 1990s, for example, he was put in charge of the company's sales force — a new challenge for the longtime brand manager.
"Kraft was a great training ground," Lenny says. "The company provided me with substantial freedom to get involved beyond the functional aspects of brand management. In addition, it allowed me to put into practice what I'd learned and experienced so well at Kellogg: a fundamental belief in inclusiveness. I saw repeatedly that the more inclusive one is in seeking expertise and input from others, the more successful the business will become."
That experience prepared Lenny for his next step, when he joined Pillsbury Co. in 1995 as president of Pillsbury North America. There, he managed $4 billion in annual sales and oversaw the integration of several newly acquired brands into the long-standing operation. Three years later, he moved to The Nabisco Biscuit Co., where as president he revitalized key brands and oversaw the business's exceptional marketplace and financial performance.
When Nabisco was acquired by Kraft in 2000, Lenny found himself reunited with his old employer. This time, he was named group vice president, responsible for Kraft's North American biscuit, snack nuts and confection businesses. Within several months, however, Lenny was tapped to join The Hershey Co. as chairman and CEO.
Lenny's tenure was not without its well-publicized challenges, including plant closures, a labor strike and the aborted sale of the firm by the company's controlling charitable trust. But as the first CEO hired from outside the company, Lenny rose to the occasion. He sought to instill the 107-year-old company with a stronger consumer and customer orientation, foster a more collaborative board environment, and recruit a new cadre of leaders from within and outside the firm. These initiatives enabled Hershey to outperform its peers significantly in the first half of this decade.
"I think the definition of leadership is the willingness to put oneself in unfamiliar positions, and I certainly had to do that," Lenny says. "I was thrown into situations I hadn't experienced before, yet I had to lead the organization through a period of great change." He retired from the company in late 2007.
Lenny remains active in numerous civic and professional activities. He serves on the board of McDonald's Corp. and the Kellogg School's Dean's Advisory Board, and is a trustee of the Georgia State University Foundation. Prior to his retirement from The Hershey Co., he was chairman of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Meanwhile, he is contemplating his next career move, possibly at another public company or at a private equity firm.
"I've retired from Hershey," the Kellogg alum says. "But I haven't retired from work."
Posted August 2008