Irene Rosenfeld: the big cheese who wants to go to work on a Creme Egg

As Cadbury continues to resist Kraft's takeover bid, Stephen Foley takes a look at the food giant's determined boss

Did you know that "a grilled cheese sandwich has more nutrients than a peanut butter and jam sandwich"? Might you be persuaded that, "in this difficult economic environment, there is nothing more exciting to a consumer than grilled cheese and a bowl of soup"? Are you aware – really, properly paying attention to this – that the cheese in Kraft Singles "makes a great grilled cheese sandwich"?

It won't be long into a conversation with Irene Rosenfeld before she draws your attention to the sheer feelgoodness of her company's processed cheese, or the value for money you get from Kraft's macaroni and cheese in a box (40 cents a serving), or how many different ways there are to eat an Oreo cookie. Yes, of course she drank the Kool-Aid. It's one of the first Kraft brands she was given responsibility for.

Although Rosenfeld has only been chief executive of Kraft since 2006, she spent 22 years of her career at the drinks and snacks giant before that. She is the quintessential marketeer, having joined the company as a market research manager in 1981. Now she faces her toughest selling job to date: the attempt to persuade Cadbury shareholders that they should swap their holdings in the historic chocolatier for a little bit of cash and a lot of Kraft shares. The audacious takeover bid, pitched at an opening $16.7bn (£10bn), has been given short shrift so far by her opposite number, Todd Stitzer, at Cadbury, but those who know Rosenfeld say you should never bet against her getting what she wants – eventually.

That was certainly the case with the top job at Kraft. Despite having played a major role in preparations for Kraft's flotation in 2001, before which it was a division of the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris, Rosenfeld was passed over for the job of running the whole company. She quit, and went to run Frito-Lay, Pepsi's crisps and snacks division, where a blizzard of new product launches – including healthier snacks – so burnished her credentials that she got a second shot at the top job at Kraft two years later.

This basketball-playing, rollerblading executive, a self-confessed iPod addict who often has Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young blaring, isn't taking Cadbury's "No" for an answer.

She's already shown her appetite for big acquisitions, snapping up Danone's biscuit business and getting a helpful new set of ins with European retailers, which Kraft has been using to expand its own product distribution, too. To woo her UK prey, Rosenfeld has extended her effusive endorsements beyond the Kraft product range. In an in-house interview about the proposed deal last week, she gasped at the thought of having to pick just one Cadbury brand as a favourite. "There are so many to choose from that it's a little hard to pick," she said. "I'd have to say on a year-round basis I think Trident Gum. I'm a heavy, heavy user of that product. But I would say that, on a seasonal basis, I just love those Cadbury eggs." And she added later: "Those eggs are a one-of-a-kind experience. If you watch people eating them, the ritual that one uses to eat a Cadbury egg is not unlike the ritual that we talk about to eat an Oreo."

"On a seasonal basis"? This is the language of the consumer-products company boss and it's no more odd than hearing A G Lafley of Procter & Gamble describe how he washes his smalls. Rosenfeld is just as comfortable weighing in on topics such as world hunger and environmental sustainability in the rarefied forums of Davos.

In short, this skinny, angular, 56-year-old native of Brooklyn, New York, is a pro. As a result, she has managed both to win the confidence of Kraft's investors and boost the morale of its staff since returning to the company.

There are signs that she is making Kraft a nimbler operation, with an emphasis on new products. Market research and focus-group work has been elevated, as you would expect under someone steeped in these dark arts. Probiotic cheeses are appealing to a desire for healthier products in the West; a tweak to the recipe for Oreos in China turned it into one of that country's fastest-growing biscuits. And the focus on innovation has cheered up a workforce that has been brutally treated by years of downsizing.

Kraft had "lost its heart and soul" by 2006, she told an audience at her alma mater, Cornell University. "The tremendous focus on costcutting, restructuring and headcount reductions had left the firm tired, raw and somewhat disillusioned. It is hard to get up every morning when costcutting is your end rather than a means."

The share price has been modestly responsive, down 13 per cent over her tenure against a consumer staples sector of slightly more than that, Financial results have improved in recent quarters. Investors feel cheered.

She is an inspirational leader, says Thomas Russo, a partner with the investment firm Gardner Russo & Gardner, a regular investor in food company stocks. "I first met her at the time of the flotation and she was considered a rising star then. She had a presence and a command of her business that marked her out as an important talent, and she came back from Pepsi schooled in the need to put the focus on the customer."

Rosenfeld met her husband, a mergers and acquisitions specialist, at Kraft, and their two daughters are now grown up. Out shopping, she will infuriate them by rearranging the supermarket shelves if they are not displaying Kraft products the right way, and she'll note down any out of stock products. The teams responsible for getting product into stores always try to keep track of her whereabouts, just to keep one step ahead of her shopping trips.

It's an attention to detail and a determination to get the best out of everything that her teachers and contemporaries at Cornell have often recalled. They tell the story of how she posted a dollar bill with every questionnaire she sent out as part of her PhD research project, and consequently got a higher response rate than anyone before.

Rosenfeld herself has joked about her determination. "Back when I was treasurer of my Brownie patrol, I was diligent about collecting those dues," she said. Cadbury may have pushed her away this past week, but it would be too early to count her out. Even if she has to go round their shareholders one at a time collecting Yesses.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick