Donald M. Kendall 1921 – 2020
By: Peter Barhydt
The man who brought Pepsi to the former Soviet Union has died. Greenwich resident Donald M. Kendall died peacefully at his home here surrounded by his family. He was 99 years old. Credited with building the Pepsi brand and its parent company PepsiCo into the juggernaut it is today, Mr. Kendall was larger than life.
We do not often write about individuals in the editorial, that is what obituaries are for. When we do, it is for someone who has left an indelible mark on our community. Mr. Kendall did just that while at the same time leaving his mark on how businesses should conduct themselves as well as international relations.
In 1959, Mr. Kendall, famously offered Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev a Pepsi at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. After several refills, Khrushchev declared it “refreshing.” What followed was a complicated barter deal that only Mr. Kendall could have pulled off. Pepsi could be imported into the Soviet Union in exchange for Stolichnaya Vodka being brought to the West. Mr. Kendall was renowned for his ability as a salesman.
From the beginning, milking cows on his family’s dairy farm in Washington state, Mr. Kendall developed a work ethic that would become integral to his leadership style. He believed in hard work, often putting in 12-hours plus days and would say “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.”
Much has been written about Mr. Kendall’s extraordinary career at Pepsi, one that began in 1946 and did not end until he left the Board of Directors in 1991 – 45 years. You no longer hear of people staying with one company that long.
Mr. Kendall was from a different generation, both figuratively and literally. He was imposing physically, standing over 6 feet. When you shook hands with him, his grip was iron-clad, and well into his 90s his enthusiastic handshake would literally pull you off balance.
As successful as he was, Mr. Kendall did not put on airs. He was a gentleman. Looking around his house on Porchuck Road you were overwhelmed by the number of photographs with world leaders, heads of state and even popes. Mr. Kendall knew them all. He built relationships with them that helped build Pepsi. However, it was always the relationship that was most important.
To have a conversation with Mr. Kendall was to travel the globe. There was no corner of it he had not been. But the conversations always instilled a nugget of wisdom and insight into who he was. Did you know that he never hired a business school graduate from an Ivy league university? He wanted people who had to work hard for their education and had the work ethic to do so, like he did as a young boy milking cows.
Mr. Kendall was not just a businessman – he loved the outdoors as well. He was an avid fisherman and liked to hunt. His ranch in Wyoming teamed with wildlife. When the ranch next to his went up for sale, Mr. Kendall called his good friend former Secretary of State James Baker and encouraged to him to purchase it. Based on Mr. Kendall’s recommendation Secretary Baker bought the ranch sight unseen. They often visited one another in Texas and Wyoming.
When someone like Mr. Kendall passes, and there are not many left like him, you look at the entirety of their life and you wonder who will be like that in the next generation. We do not have the answer. Times change, society changes, but there is always the opportunity to look at the life of a successful businessman, outdoorsman, husband, father, grandfather, and gentleman and learn from it. That we intend to do.
To the entire Kendall family, we extend our condolences.