Irene Rosenfeld

Profiling Kraft Foods’ Irene Rosenfeld: an extraordinary businessperson

Irene Rosenfeld, a woman who dared to out oracle the Oracle (Warren Buffet), has taken another big risk, dividing global food-maker Kraft into two businesses. Irene Rosenfeld is among the most powerful women in corporate America, and among the most private…

Forbes recently ranked Rosenfeld, the CEO of Northfield-based Kraft Foods, second on its most powerful women list, ahead of Oprah Winfrey and behind only Michelle Obama. But unlike the reputations of other prominent business figures, Rosenfeld’s has been built almost entirely via boardroom maneuvers that showcased her guts and smarts and sometimes sacrificed her popularity.

When she made a bold and hostile move to take over iconic British confectioner Cadbury two years ago, the UK news media demonized her, describing her tactics as “World Wrestling Entertainment.” Warren Buffett called the move “dumb.”

That acquisition enriched Kraft shareholders, and with the stock rising 19 percent, it set the stage for the equally aggressive move announced Thursday: the planned splitting up of the company into two companies, each to be based in the Chicago area and each built on its own set of iconic brands, including Oreo, Jell-O, Oscar Mayer and Cadbury Dairy Milk.

“She’s clear, she’s consistent, she’s gutsy,” said Sheli Rosenberg, one of Chicago’s most experienced female deal-makers. “The deal she just concluded proves that. She knows what she wants to achieve, and then she goes after it.”

Her public persona ends there. Here stands a woman willing to challenge Buffett on business, a woman who dares to out-oracle the Oracle. On all other subjects, Rosenfeld, 58, appears beyond guarded.

Unlike other CEOs of other big-name Chicago-area companies, she doesn’t lend her name to many civic organizations or court media attention. Britons took umbrage when Rosenfeld declined invitations to appear before Parliament and answer questions surrounding the Cadbury deal. A report from the House of Commons said Kraft “steered close to contempt of the House.”

“She’s not going to go to a lot of (charity) benefits; she’s not going to get involved in a lot of things,” said a well-known Chicago business figure who didn’t want to be identified talking about her. “If it doesn’t have something to do with her family or with being the CEO of Kraft, forget it. … You won’t see her in any other circumstance.”

With her two children grown, there is very little tying Rosenfeld to local schools, neighbors or events in the affluent North Shore village of Kenilworth, where she lives. And with a bevy of big-name New York investors to please, from activist investor Nelson Peltz to hedge fund manager William Ackman, her audience is international.

This year she was the fifth-highest-paid CEO of a publicly traded company in the Chicago area and the highest-paid female CEO, with a total compensation package of $19.3 million.

Rosenfeld was driven and determined from a young age, and her childhood career ambition was to be president of the United States.

A multisport athlete from Long Island, NY, she went to Cornell University in 1971 and left in 1980 with three degrees: a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in business and a Ph.D. in marketing and statistics. At Cornell, she met her first husband, Philip Rosenfeld, with whom she had two daughters, Carol and Allison. Her husband died in 1995 at age 43. She later married Richard Illgen, an investment banker.

In an interview recorded for Cornell’s website, Rosenfeld said it was an introduction to psychology class and the professor who taught it — Jim Maas — that persuaded her to pursue her career path.

“I served as a (teaching assistant) for him in my junior and senior years; I taught a course on the psychology of advertising, which really formed the basis for my love of marketing and advertising and psychology that has really carried over into my career to this very day,” she said.

In her rare conversations with the news media, Rosenfeld is upbeat but always on point and surrounded by aides. In an interview with Forbes after the Cadbury takeover, the reporter attempted to bait her, asking if she’d “proven Buffett wrong.” Rosenfeld said only that she was pleased with the outcome and respects the opinions of all of Kraft’s investors. She was just as gracious, and cautious, when a British tabloid reporter turned up at her door to ask about the Cadbury deal — she politely declined the interview request, the Daily Mirror reported.

Rosenfeld is a fan of opera and active in her synagogue, North Shore Congregation Israel. Some who know her say it is perhaps one of the few places she can be herself — with her rabbi describing her as warm, kind and unassuming.

“She doesn’t wear a badge that says, ‘I am listed by Forbes,'” Rabbi Steven Mason said. “She sees herself, and wants to be, a member just like anybody else.”…..

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