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It’s not every day you see someone go from serving as a janitor to rising up to become an executive marketer. In this episode of the Leadercast Podcast, we learn the unforgettable story about an uneducated man who became a global influencer for leadership and diversity… all because of Cheetos.
The man is Richard Montañez, who has served as a marketing and sales executive for PepsiCo for 35 years, and in this episode, we hear about his personal leadership story.
Perhaps best known for inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Richard was a janitor at a Frito-Lay factory when he broke rank and took a chance by calling the CEO with his new flavor idea. Since then he’s worked under five CEOs and is writing his second book.
“Ideas and innovation can come from anyone and they can come from any place,” says Richard. “Some of my greatest ideas have been just by listening to people.”
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Source of Motivation
Richard attributes his success to his main source of motivation: his last name. In other words, Richard has always been aware that financial rewards are not as important as the legacy you leave.
Richard explains that you have to be good before you can be great. He says that young people say to him, “‘Mr. Montañez, if you give me that promotion, I'll work so hard for you.’ And I look at them and say, ‘Why aren't you working hard for me now?’ … Your last name should be your motivation, why you work hard and why you want to be successful.”
He attributes his father as an example of someone who took legacy seriously. “My father went through the third grade, but there wasn't anything he couldn't do,” he says. “He was just a brilliant Renaissance man, but he never had a formal education.”
Richard followed in his father’s footsteps by quitting school at a young age and working full time since he was a preteen. “When I applied to Frito-Lay, I couldn't read or write. My wife filled out the application,” he shares.
“It was my last name that drove me,” he says. “My job is to mop the floors, but guess what? They're going to shine like they never have before.”
Breaking Rank at Frito-Lay
While serving as a janitor at a Frito-Lay factory, Richard heard the CEO tell everyone to act like owners because the company sales were down. “Everyone around me said, ‘Richard, he's not talking to us.’ I said, ‘He is.’ I've learned that there'll be times where you'll just have to break rank,” Richard explains.
Richard had never received an invitation like that before. He felt empowered to act like an owner, so he started studying the business. He recognized that the chip flavors were bland and found inspiration for a new recipe when a street vendor put chili on his hot dog.
“What if I put chili on the Cheetos?” he asked. Richard and his wife, Judy, worked with some unflavored Cheetos to find a spicy recipe that everyone loved.
That’s when Richard called the CEO and the executive assistant put him through. “I began to tell him the only way I knew how: talking through my heart. He said, ‘I’ll be there in two weeks.’”
To get ready for his presentation, Richard checked out a library book about developing a marketing strategy, bought his first tie for $3.50 and made 100 bags of the product.
“Everybody in the room was mad. Why would the CEO bring us to hear the uneducated janitor?” Richard recalls. He was intimidated, but he gave the presentation. “The next thing you know, Cheetos is [making] $1 billion a year in North America,” he says.
Richard notes that he could never have broken rank without his wife, Judy. “She is such a strong, powerful woman. She is my inspiration. The love of a good woman can take a nobody with nothing and transform them into a somebody with something. That is Judy.”
In the 35 years that Richard has been at PepsiCo, he’s worked to increase the diversity of the company.
“I'm one of the first Latinos and persons of color to be promoted,” he says. He recalls a time when a receptionist at a headquarters in Texas offered to call a translator for him based on her assumption about his appearance.
“How I began to change it is I broke protocol, went straight to the top. So, you know, I'd tell each CEO, I know you're working on diversity, but here's what we're lacking,” says Richard.
First diversity has to be accepted before it can be embraced. “The first law of diversity is you have to tolerate it,” he points out. “The ultimate leaders and companies are those that embrace it. Do I think we are there yet? No, we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Richard is proud of creating the first employee resource group at PepsiCo. He is also proud to be the first Latino to join the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Richard credits part of his achievements to the original invitation to act like an owner at Frito-Lay, and how the CEO listened when Richard did. “If you lead people, you have to be careful what you tell them,” he notes. “If you don't mean it, then don't say it.”
As a speaker and industry leader, Richard leads others by improving their lives. “I don't try to make anybody a better salesperson,” he says. “What I do try is to make them better people.”
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Connect with Richard on LinkedIn.