Independent Board Director, Irene Chang Britt, on an Enviable Career

Independent Board Director, Irene Chang Britt, on an Enviable Career

Meet Irene Chang Britt, independent board director, former President, Pepperidge Farm and Senior VP Global Baking and Snacking at Campbell Soup Co., entrepreneur, and all-around inspiration. From opening her own business at 18 to running Pepperidge Farm, Britt has had an enviable career, and did it all with a BA in anthropology (okay, she’s got her MBA too). On top of all this, she has a family, and mentors young, professional women. What more could you ask for in a boss? 

Tell me about about where you grew up.

I was born in Taiwan, but my family moved to Canada when I was one . I went to the University of Toronto for my undergrad in anthropology and University of Western Ontario for my MBA.

How did you get your start in business?

During my undergrad, my brother [Howard Chang] and I owned two bike stores called Bikenergy, one in The Beach and one in Yorkville. We were really young — I was 18 and my brother was 22 — it was very successful.

Was that success part of the reason you did an MBA?

Yes, in fact, it was. And after I got my MBA, I did an internship at Kimberly-Clark [the company behind Cottonelle toilet paper, Huggies, Kleenex] and then was hired full-time. I spent the first five years of my career there; after that I got a call from a head hunter to go to Kraft General Foods. They had a strategy job, and I thought “oooh that sounds fun!” So, I did that for a couple of years and then my old boss from Kimberly-Clark called and said, “I need you to shut down Canada with me and come to the U.S.” [laughs]. In the 1990s, a lot U.S.-based multi-nationals decided to North-Americanize, so I wound-down a lot of the operations in Canada, and then I moved to Atlanta in 1991.

What does it mean to “wind-down” a division? Is it like closing up a shop at the end of the day?

You didn’t close Canada as a business. You decided what synergies you could get out of the functional areas that you didn’t have to duplicate. So you can’t avoid duplicating sales, trade marketing, some IT, but could you do R&D from one central area for all of North America? Absolutely. Not only did we find some synergies, but we also brought a number of Canadian employees to Atlanta, so we created opportunities. It was really about creating a more efficient North American team.

Before becoming an independent member of public boards, you were President of Pepperidge Farm, how did you get there?

I’ve done a billion things — can’t keep a job apparently [laughs]. I retired as the President of Pepperidge Farm, but that was only the last three years of a 30-year career. In the ’90s, I did corporate strategy for Kraft and then went back to Kimberly-Clark. I’ve gone back and forth from B2B [business to business] and B2C [business to consumer]. In Atlanta, I ran R&D a little bit, innovation and market segmentation at Kimberly-Clark. Then in ’98, I quit to start my own company. 

You quit corporate America to start your own business?

I opened a concierge business for busy, working parents. The concept was this: in Atlanta, a lot of professionals have their kids in day care. At the end of a busy day, you can choose to do errands or not. But the only thing you can’t not do is pick up your child. So, I thought, if that’s the last stop you have, why don’t we provide chef-prepared dinners for you right there, where you pick up your child? Location, location, location.

What made you decide to stop?

I hated driving food around the city! After that, I didn’t have any ties in Atlanta, and decided to go back to Toronto. That’s when I started at Nabisco, running Marketing Insigts Innovation, and I eventually ran Nabisco Canada.

What made you move back to the US? 

I moved back in 2001, after Kraft bought Nabisco. Then in 2005, I joined Campbell as GM of a division. I eventually became President of North America Foodservice, Global Chief Strategy Officer and then President of Pepperidge Farm. So yeah, I’ve done some interesting stuff!

You’re currently on the Board of Directors for a number of companies— what does that mean? How do you help companies when you’re in that capacity?

When you become a member of the Board it becomes much more about corporate governance and strategy than it is about management. There should be a very distinct line between management and the Board — the Board is there to ensure good governance, financial control and reporting, overseeing management as they develop strategy and pursue strategy, and making sure ethics are properly followed. The Board is also the advisor to the CEO and we determine compensation and incentives.

Is there one job you liked more than another? One role you really enjoyed? 

It’s all been pretty fun! My reputation in the industry is that I do transformational growth and turnarounds, that’s what I specialize in. So I like to take really ugly situations like the recession — never let a good crisis go to waste — and rebuild the business models. I like to rip them apart, and rebuild them. I have a very strong track record of building extreme, almost irrational growth. That’s what I love to do — whenever you get the opportunity to grow something from 400m to 700m in 3 years (which is breakneck speed), it’s just so much fun. But I don’t do that anymore. I’m retired and sitting on boards, and busy and that’s why I need Breather.

How did Breather find a way into your work-life?

I was about a year out of my corporate existence, and I didn’t have an anchoring, an office to go to. I’m pretty mobile — I know I’m a boomer, but my friends call me a millennial [laughs]. I’ve never had a problem with tech, or mobility, but I need a place to make important phone calls. One day, very frustrated, I said to my husband “I don’t have a place to sit and do work, I think I need to join a university club [30–40k a year].” He said, “that’s a waste of money, can’t you sit in a café?” Out of desperation, I started looking… I Googled every keyword: flexible, workspace, no-commitment and Breather came up! It was exactly what I needed, it was really affordable, and the founders are from Montreal — I thought, what could be wrong with this?!

How do you use it?

It’s like an oasis for me. If I need to talk about a CEO’s compensation, I don’t want anybody near. I want a closed door, reliable WiFi, I want access to a clean bathroom, I want access to make myself a hot cup of tea, and other than that I’m pretty self-sufficient. 

As a woman in business, have you found the industry has changed over your 30-year career? Are the challenges any different? 

They’re always there. It has changed a little bit, it’s a little more friendly towards women, but we’re still fighting the old stereotypes.
I don’t have many role models ahead of me, but hopefully we can become role models. I do a ton of mentoring of younger women, because I want to create a path for them that wasn’t clear for many of us. In fact, a few of us got together and started a program for women in their late-20s and early-30s because we want to give them the advice that we never got. That’s my other passion. Things have changed, but not enough.

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