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Donald Kendall, WWII veteran who built PepsiCo into a soda and snack-food giant, dies at 99

By HARRISON SMITH | The Washington Post | Published: September 21, 2020

Donald Kendall, a former fountain-syrup salesman who engineered the merger of Pepsi-Cola and Frito-Lay, then built PepsiCo into one of America's largest companies while selling soda to the Soviet Union as part of a Cold War gambit, died Sept. 19 at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 99.

His family announced the death in a statement and did not give a precise cause.

As president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola and its successor company, PepsiCo, Kendall turned a middling beverage business into a globe-spanning rival of Coca-Cola. From 1963 until his retirement in 1986, he brought Pepsi to China and the Soviet Union, broadened the company's portfolio by acquiring fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and helped pioneer the modern diet soda with the development of Diet Pepsi.

Kendall became a global ambassador for American business, chairing groups including the National Alliance of Businessmen and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He also developed close ties with presidents and foreign dignitaries, staying at Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's dacha, donating money to Richard Nixon's presidential campaigns and helping focus Nixon's ire on Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was soon ousted in a coup.

For all his interest in politics and the arts — Kendall fished with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and built a sprawling, publicly accessible sculpture garden at PepsiCo's headquarters in Purchase, N.Y. — he remained deeply focused on his company's day-to-day operations, espousing and embodying a combative "Pepsi spirit" while growing revenue from $200 million to $7.6 billion.

Kendall had a Pepsi at breakfast, avoided saying the word "Coke" whenever possible and, when waiters told him Pepsi was not on the menu, pitched them on his company's flagship product.

When he delivered the commencement address at Western Kentucky University, his alma mater, he noted that one of the first things he saw upon arrival "was the Coca-Cola vending machine — and I didn't particularly consider that a friendly act."

Kendall was perhaps an unlikely warrior in the "cola wars" that began in the 1970s, when Pepsi emerged as a serious rival to Coca-Cola. A self-described "farm boy" from Washington state, he served as a naval aviator during World War II, came home with a case full of medals and started his business career at Pepsi-Cola, working on a bottling line and selling fountain syrup to restaurants in Atlantic City, N.J.

Over the next decade, he rose to oversee U.S. sales, marketing and overseas operations, securing his status as a young soda-pop star when he traveled to Moscow in 1959. Kendall set up a Pepsi booth at the American National Exhibition, a diplomatic trade show that served as the setting for political debates between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Nixon, who was vice president at the time.

"I went to Nixon the night before, at the embassy, and told him I was in a lot of trouble at home because people thought I was wasting Pepsi's money coming to a Communist country," Kendall told The New York Times in 1999. "I told him that somehow, I had to get a Pepsi in Khrushchev's hand."

The next day, Nixon brought his communist counterpart over to the Pepsi booth, where photographers took pictures of Khrushchev sipping Pepsi, including rival samples made, respectively, from American and Russian water. The Soviet-made version was delicious, Khrushchev declared in a publicity coup for Pepsi. Coca-Cola was nowhere to be seen.

In 1972, Kendall made Pepsi the first U.S. consumer product produced and sold in the Soviet Union, developing an agreement with Soviet authorities that he called "a culmination of our work" in the country.

In exchange for selling Pepsi in the Soviet Union, PepsiCo distributed Russian Stolichnaya vodka in the United States. Nearly two decades later, Kendall struck an even more unusual deal with Moscow, agreeing to buy the equivalent of a small navy — including 17 Russian submarines and three old warships, all resold for scrap — in exchange for opening more than two dozen plants in the Soviet Union, where foreign companies often found it difficult to get paid.

Kendall was jubilant in a subsequent conversation with Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush. "We're disarming the Soviet Union faster than you are," he joked. (A 1990 deal he put together as PepsiCo's chairman, valued at more than $3 billion, fell apart after the Soviet Union collapsed the next year.)

Colleagues described Kendall as a perfectionist, with little tolerance for poor performance. He reportedly acquired the nickname "White Fang" after reorganizing the company early in his tenure (the moniker was partly a nod to his prematurely white hair), and drew the anger of actress and PepsiCo board member Joan Crawford, whose late husband had led Pepsi, when Kendall dropped her as the business's longtime spokesperson.

Kendall effectively replaced Crawford, giving frequent interviews and garnering a steady stream of publicity for his work in the Soviet Union and his involvement in American politics, including through his friendship with Nixon. The future president worked as a lawyer for Pepsi in the early 1960s, played the piano at Kendall's second wedding and later told The Wall Street Journal that he was a "very valued adviser."

That connection was firmly established by the fall of 1970, when Kendall met with the president on behalf of another associate, Agustín Edwards Eastman, a conservative Chilean media magnate who owned a Pepsi bottling plant, along with the country's largest newspaper. Allende had just been elected and was preparing to take office on a Marxist platform, endangering Edwards's business interests and spurring him to leave the country.

In an Oval Office meeting with Nixon, Kendall "relayed Edwards's message that the United States had to intervene to stop Allende," said Peter Kornbluh, director of the Chile Documentation Project at the Washington-based National Security Archive. In a phone interview, he added that Kendall's overtures to Nixon spurred a meeting between Edwards and senior officials such as national security adviser Henry Kissinger and CIA Director Richard Helms.

The next day, the president ordered the CIA to prevent Allende from being inaugurated or, if that was not possible, to overthrow the Chilean government, according to documents published by the National Security Archive. Kissinger approved $250,000 for political warfare in Chile, and the CIA ultimately delivered nearly $2 million to Edwards's campaign to destabilize Allende, according to journalist Tim Weiner's book "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" (2007).

Allende was ousted by the Chilean military in 1973 and died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds during the coup, paving the way for a brutal 17-year dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Kendall told The Times in 1976 that he saw nothing controversial in connecting Edwards and Nixon. Nor did he see anything unusual in his political work more broadly. In interviews, he argued that his relationships with politicians, including as a donor to Nixon, were an essential part of his job as a chief executive.

"I don't care if you're a Republican, Democrat or a Holy Roller," he told The Wall Street Journal in 1983, "you've got to make sure the company has a healthy economic and political environment in which to operate."

Donald McIntosh Kendall was born in Sequim, Wash., on March 16, 1921. His parents ran a dairy farm where he milked Holstein cows twice a day, and in high school he became a standout football player, earning a scholarship to what was then Western Kentucky State Teachers College in Bowling Green.

His education was interrupted by World War II, when he joined the Navy and became a pilot. He was shot down near the Philippines, received the Distinguished Flying Cross and, after returning home in 1947, joined Pepsi rather than return to school.

After being named Pepsi-Cola's president and CEO in 1963, Kendall oversaw the company's merger with the snack giant Frito-Lay two years later. He had met chief executive Herman Lay at a grocer's convention and went on to oversee PepsiCo as it expanded into industries as varied as trucking and sporting goods.

His first marriage, to Anne McDonell, ended in divorce. In 1965 he married the former German Baroness Sigrid Rüdt von Collenberg, known as Bim. She survives him, as do two children from his first marriage, Edward and Donna Kendall; two children from his second marriage, Kent and Donald Kendall Jr.; and 10 grandchildren.

Kendall was elected PepsiCo's chairman in 1971 and continued in that role until 1991, five years after retiring as chief executive at age 65. The company faced scandal in the early 1980s, when it announced that a small group of executives had falsely inflated profits connected to Mexican and Philippine bottling units.

PepsiCo settled a Securities and Exchange Commission case, agreeing not to violate federal securities laws going forward, and Kendall emerged from the episode with his reputation intact.

He was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame and in 1986 became the inaugural recipient of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Equal Justice Award, an honor that reflected his support for diversity and inclusion efforts.

With his support, the company had named Harvey Russell the first Black vice president of a major U.S. company in 1962. When the Ku Klux Klan organized a boycott of Pepsi, Kendall responding by naming a second Black corporate officer.