Brenda Jo Czajka, a granddaughter of Polish immigrants, was born on Nov. 11, 1953, in Chicago and grew up in River Grove, Ill., a gritty suburb northwest of the city. Her father was a pipe fitter at International Harvester, the agricultural manufacturer; her mother stayed home to look after Brenda and her six sisters.
She graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., in 1975 with a major in economics. After stints waiting on tables and sorting mail, she landed a job in the back office of Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago in 1976.
Wilson was part of the fast-growing Pepsi conglomerate at the time, and Ms. Barnes began to climb the corporate ladder rapidly while working toward her master’s degree in business at Loyola University Chicago, which she received in 1980. She then moved to a senior job marketing salty snacks at Pepsi’s Frito-Lay division in Dallas.
Also in 1980, she married Randall Barnes, a top executive at the company. The marriage ended in divorce.
Ms. Barnes rose from one top job to another, moving from marketing positions to broader management roles until she was named to run the company’s giant beverage business in North America in 1996.
Ms. Barnes had been chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America for a year and a half when she decided in 1997 to step down, saying that after two decades of grueling hours away from home she wanted to spend time with her three children.
She did not fully retire from corporate life, however. She became a sought-after company director, joining the boards of The New York Times (from 1998 to 2008), Avon, Lucasfilm, Sears and Staples.
In 2004, with her children in high school, Ms. Barnes accepted an offer to be a top executive at Sara Lee, the food conglomerate based in Chicago. She was soon named chairwoman and chief executive — becoming one of the few women to run a major American corporation.
Ms. Barnes’s stroke came in May 2010, while she was lifting weights at a local gym. It left her incapable of simple motor activities. Three months later, at 56 and after a tough rehabilitation period, she stepped down permanently from Sara Lee. She did not return to corporate life again.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Barnes is survived by two sons, Jeff and Brian; her partner, Sal Barrutia; and five sisters, Linda Stebbins, Donna Williams, Rhonda Thompson, Laurna Czajka and Trina Baker. Another sister, Andra, died before her.
BRENDA C. BARNES Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Sara Lee Corporation since October 2005, President and Chief Executive Officer from February 2005 to October 2005, and President and Chief Operating Officer from July 2004 to February 2005. She has served as a director of Sara Lee since July 2004. Ms. Barnes served as the Interim President of Starwood Hotels and Resorts (hotel chain) from November 1999 to March 2000, and President and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCola North America (soft drink manufacturer) from 1996 until 1998. Prior to that, she held various positions with several divisions of PepsiCo, Inc. from 1976 to 1996. Ms. Barnes also served as an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Business and at North Central College in 2002. She is a member of the Steering Committee of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women.more » « less