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In Memoriam

Lee Hillman, ’79
Bally Total Fitness Shapes Up

Sometimes people look at Polly B. Kawalek “just a little oddly” when they find out she’s been working at one company for 21 years.

“They think you don’t know any headhunters and that you have no skills,” said Kawalek, the vibrant, plain-speaking president of the hot breakfast division and vice president of Quaker Oats Company.

In fact, Kawalek, 46, sparkles with creativity and has proven herself a marketing whiz. For one thing, she co-invented cat treats, which became a $20 million business for Quaker.

“It’s continually exciting trying to understand why people do what they do and then trying to influence their behavior, presumably to buy your product,” Kawalek said, explaining why she enjoys what she does. “I probably find my career as rewarding now as at any point, because I am that much more experienced and that much smarter.”

Kawalek joined Quaker as a marketing assistant in the pet foods division in 1979, not long after graduating from the evening program. She has held 12 positions at Quaker, including positions in the Fisher-Price toys division and the snacks division. Named president of hot cereals in 1996, she was promoted to vice president in 1998 and now reports directly to Quaker’s CEO.

“My career has been a riot,” Kawalek said. “I never aspired to run a division, to report to a CEO.”

Kawalek remained at Quaker at times when others would have left—for example, when she helped create Pounce, the first cat treat.

When she was promoted to brand manager of new products, Quaker had a moist cat food sealed in individual pouches called Moist Meals. In each pouch was a “bonus nugget of nutrition.”

“My cats wouldn’t eat Moist Meals on a bet, but they would eat that stupid nugget,” Kawalek says. “I threw them across the room and the cats would chase them.”

The plan in her division was to create a third dry dog food, but Kawalek became fixated on cat treats. She collaborated with two colleagues, one in marketing research and one in R&D. Other coworkers thought they were crazy and told them to stick with the new dog food, but Kawalek and company developed cat treats and gave them to 100 of their friends with a questionnaire. The results were overwhelmingly positive, and eventually Quaker developed cat treats—and then dog treats—based on legitimate research. Dog treats and cat treats combined turned into a $70 million business for Quaker.

“If I were a true entrepreneur, I’d have left and done it on my own,” Kawalek admitted. “But I didn’t need to make myself money, I just wanted to do it.”

Kawalek also stuck it out in bad times, like the aftermath of Quaker’s oat bran fiasco.

After a scientific article announced in spring 1988 that oat bran lowered cholesterol, sales of Quaker Oat Bran took off. “We’re out of capacity, people are screaming, everyone starts chasing this thing because there’s this roaring demand going,” Kawalek said.

Kawalek’s division spent 1988 and 1989 creating new products and launched them in December 1989—just in time to see the end of the oat bran fad. “We fell $20 million short of plan,” Kawalek said. “We were disgraced. Everyone else left.”

Kawalek, needless to say, stayed. After the fiasco, “Quaker didn’t know what to do with me,” Kawalek said. She watched with gritted teeth as she was passed over for promotion. “It was not pleasant,” she said, but staying earned her loyalty from those around her, and she doesn’t regret it.

While she never expected to stay at Quaker this long, she said she loves the work and respects her colleagues. And, perhaps most importantly, the company has encouraged her to pursue new directions creatively. “If you have a passion for an idea and you are willing to be an advocate for that idea and you are willing to stick your neck out a little, do it. Quaker will support you,” Kawalek said. “And so for me, I’m really good at thinking up my next adventure. I don’t need someone to tell me what it is—I’ll dream it up.”—Jennifer Vanasco
Vital statistics: Polly B. Kawalek, ’78

1978 Evening Program graduate

President, hot breakfast division, and vice president, Quaker Oats Company

Married to Paul Kawalek, ’78

Career path:
1979 Joined Quaker as a marketing assistant in the pet foods division

1980 Promoted to assistant brand manager of pet foods

1981 Became brand manager of pet foods

1983 Joined Fisher-Price toys division as group product manager

1985 Advanced to director of marketing and market research

1987 Named director of marketing for new hot cereals

1991 Became vice president of new business development

1992 Named vice president for wholesome variety

1994 Named president of snacks division

1996 Promoted to president of hot cereals division

1998 Named vice president of Quaker and president of hot breakfast division

One reason she’s stayed at Quaker for more than two decades:
“Quaker recruits really smart, talented people. It’s much like going to the University of Chicago, where you really don’t have to second-guess the intellectual capability of your classmates because the school did that for you.”

Kawalek’s tips for success:
1. Know who you are.
2. Know your spark.
3. Know how to bounce back.
4. Know you’re not alone.
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