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Lee Hillman, 79
Bally Total Fitness Shapes Up
|Sometimes people look at Polly B. Kawalek just a little oddly when they find out shes been working at one company for 21 years.
They think you dont 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.
Its 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 Quakers 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 leftfor 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 wouldnt 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 treatsand then dog treatsbased on legitimate research. Dog treats and cat treats combined turned into a $70 million business for Quaker.
If I were a true entrepreneur, Id have left and done it on my own, Kawalek admitted. But I didnt need to make myself money, I just wanted to do it.
Kawalek also stuck it out in bad times, like the aftermath of Quakers oat bran fiasco.
After a scientific article announced in spring 1988 that oat bran lowered cholesterol, sales of Quaker Oat Bran took off. Were out of capacity, people are screaming, everyone starts chasing this thing because theres this roaring demand going, Kawalek said.
Kawaleks division spent 1988 and 1989 creating new products and launched them in December 1989just 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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, Im really good at thinking up my next adventure. I dont need someone to tell me what it isIll 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
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 shes stayed at Quaker for more than two decades:
Quaker recruits really smart, talented people. Its much like going to the University of Chicago, where you really dont have to second-guess the intellectual capability of your classmates because the school did that for you.
Kawaleks tips for success:
1. Know who you are.
2. Know your spark.
3. Know how to bounce back.
4. Know youre not alone.