May 26--You may never have heard of Ingredion, but chances are you consume ingredients made by the company on a regular basis.
Formerly known as Corn Products International, the Westchester-based company used to be known for making high fructose corn syrup, the ubiquitous sweetener that consumers have revolted against in recent years. But since CEO Ilene Gordon came aboard in 2009, there have been major changes. After the 2010 acquisition of New Jersey-based National Starch, Gordon rebranded the company and repositioned it as a global ingredient maker that's increasingly working with large food and beverage companies trying to evolve with changing consumer trends.
Think gluten-free and non-GMO ingredients. Gordon, 62, is already planning ahead for future trends, though -- a habit of hers that's paid off well for the $5.6 billion company and its shareholders. When she joined the company, shares sold for about $25. Today, they're trading at more than $117.
A Boston native, Gordon and her husband have lived in the Chicago area for 37 years, recently moving to the Gold Coast neighborhood from the North Shore. In a recent interview, Gordon gave ample credit to her parents for her success. Her father, an accountant, used to bring home spreadsheets for her to fill out. Take note, parents.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: I was going to ask what set you on this path of being one of only 22 female CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. Sounds like you had good parents.
A: They instilled in us this attitude that you're capable, you can do anything you want. And don't let anybody deter that. And just figure it out. My mother was a teacher, so she was a planner. She used to say to me in January of every year, what are you going to do this summer? I used to think, that's six months away, why do I need to? And she said, you need a plan. ... So I would make a plan in January for what I would be doing that summer that would create value in my career and my life. That instilled in me the whole planning aspect of my career and my life.
Q: I imagine that many people not in the food industry or business world may not know about Ingredion. How would you describe your job and company to a bunch of strangers at a cocktail party?
A: What I say to people is I'm CEO of Ingredion, almost a $6 billion global ingredient company. We supply healthy ingredients to all the food and beverage companies around the world. We're in 40 different countries.
Q: My understanding is this is a company that used to be known for making high fructose corn syrup. And now you've diversified the portfolio, made some acquisitions and you're moving the company more along the lines of consumer trends. Is that a fair assessment?
A: Absolutely. When I came in the high fructose for beverage (sales) was a much higher percent -- over 20 percent -- of our total (revenue). Today, it's under 10 percent. It's one of a thousand ingredients. There will always be consumers who want products that have different types of sweeteners. But we've really grown through acquisition, and even our (research and development) -- our product development from National Starch -- that has really helped us expand with different ingredients that are very much on consumer trends.
Q: In 2009, was it already clear to you that consumers were moving away from high fructose corn syrup?
A: There certainly was a trend where high fructose corn syrup was not growing. In fact, there was a slow decline. Many companies were advertising switching from high fructose to sugar as part of a marketing campaign. They were actually paying more money for sugar. We saw that as an important trend.
Q: Is high fructose corn syrup still important to this company?
A: Our strategy is to be a global ingredient provider. Our focus is on texture. We're the leader in texture. There's many ways to get texture, through corn, potatoes, tapioca, even rice. But you have to also deliver the sweetness. Consumers want products that taste good. They want them to be healthy. They want to know what's on the label. And they want it to taste good.
Q: How does your relationship work with the large food and beverage companies? Do they come to Ingredion and say they need more gluten-free or non-GMO ingredients?
A: What's interesting is the old Corn Products at $4 billion had expertise in sweetness and was in three different global regions. And National Starch was a smaller company at about $1.3 billion but more global and more starch focused. Ingredion together, at almost $6 billion, becomes more important to our customers than we ever were separately.
Q: How do you decide what trends to invest in?
A: Most of the trends we focus on are very much the strongest trends. I'll give you an example of what we don't do. We don't focus on low-salt. That might be something that's important to a food company, but they would not come to us for that expertise. ... We're focused on texture, sweetness and nutrition.
Q: When you came on in 2009 and laid out your plan and started making changes, did you get any pushback from the board or the people who work here?
A: I'd say some jumped on the bandwagon faster than others. When we went to change the name, several people wrote me emails from our factories who'd been with the company for 30 years and they said 'How can you mess with a 100-year-old name?' Corn Products was a 100-year-old name. So was National Starch. And I said, this is going to be the new way we're going to create value for our company. Ingredion is the way of the future. ... Two years later, when they saw the success, they wrote me emails saying, 'Thank you, you helped create value.' Now our customers understand we're an ingredient company, not a corn company, and we're much more diverse in our capabilities to go to market and develop these solutions. You always have people who are a little bit skeptical. It's all about creating success stories and communicating to everyone where you're going.
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