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Patrice Pluto PepsiCo Pioneer

Patrice Pluto PepsiCo Pioneer
When Patrice Pluto was 25, she 究tarted working at the old New York Pepsi bottling plant that sprawled under the iconic red sign spelling PepsiCola. The plant is long gone, but the sign has landmark status in its site along the East River, a reminder of the gritty industrial past of the area, now home to new apartment buildings, offices, schools, film studios, art galleries, and museums.

Patrice Pluto PepsiCo Pioneer

Surprising twists and turns marked the journey from college to career success for
Patrice Pluto 77, Director of Operations of North America Beverages at PepsiCo.

By Carol Olsen Day
Photographs by Matt Carr

As a biology major at 間眅埶AV College, Patrice Pluto imagined her dream job would be in a white lab coat alone with her microscope in a pristine scientific setting. A much different environmentan old, dark manufacturing plant on the East River in Long Island Citys mid-century industrial neighborhoodturned out to be the crucible for self-discovery and development she never expected.

Pluto was fascinated by biology from her first science class in junior high school. Today government and business encourage students to prepare for and enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers. In the mid 70s, schools had not yet developed curricula emphasizing STEM, especially not for young women. Most of Plutos classmates aspired to be doctors, dentists, and veterinarians. She wanted to be a scientist.

From the first, she knew she would go to college. Her immigrant grandfather had insisted on higher education for all of the women in the family. Growing up in Bethlehem, she had planned to go to a school farther away. But her mother wasnt well, and the family wanted her close by.

Junior year was tumultuous. After a long illness, her mother died, and Pluto moved out of the dorm to be home with her father. That spring, she had a serious car accident. One of her professors suggested she enroll in an urban semester work-study program in Harrisburg in the fall. There, Pluto was assigned a job classifying aquatic insect larvae and was able to test out her vision of working in a lab.

After graduation, she answered a help-wanted ad and applied for a job at the huge Lehigh Valley plant of Kraft Foods (now Mondelez International). When Kraft read her application, they decided to offer her a higher position as a food technologist, a job requiring a solid science background.

I can do this, she thought. This is it, my opportunity.

Intro to Manufacturing

For the first time, Pluto was immersed in a manufacturing environment. The Kraft plant was the companys second-largest domestic production facility, employing about 1,200 men and women, manufacturing and distributing 249 types of cheese, plus margarine, steak sauce, mayonnaise, and salad dressing.

I thought I was the luckiest person because I got to work in the cheese plant, she says.

Pluto was impressed by the many moving parts of the operation, by the focused activity and all the workers. She supervised the quality control process, checking equipment settings, taking samples for testing, and responding to any issues that arose. She discovered she loved being a part of the interaction of people with different skills working together. She also found she was good at listening and communicating.

My final role as manufacturing supervisor of the cheese processing department was the coolest, she recalls. It was a heavy labor area, and I supervised the men who, with the aid of grinders, a monorail system, and massive blenders, transformed 500-pound blocks of cheese into 15,000-pound batches for packaging.

Pluto made it a practice to sit at lunch with the workers, getting to know them. Her management style developed organically, she says. She still remembers when one worker revealed to her that he had been fired during the aftermath of a strike and then brought back; and when an older woman who had bid on and won a difficult sanitation job was grateful when Pluto congratulated her.

If you treat people with respect, Pluto says, it creates a healthier work environment.

Plutos goal had always been to live and work in New York. Following four years at Kraft, and having lost her father a year after her mom died, the 25-year-old was ready to make the move. In 1981, she applied for a manufacturing supervisor job at PepsiCo, in Long Island City, Queens, across the East River from Manhattan.

What makes workers happy, Pluto says, is what makes us all happy: a safe environment, respect, knowing that your job means something, and the positive impact of everyone on each other.

The Pepsi Challenge

The day of her job interview at PepsiCo started at 10 a.m. and ended late in the evening. The company wanted her to know what to expectespecially what it would be like to be the only woman in a workspace and the first woman supervisor of men likely to be hostile to a woman encroaching on their set ways and territory.

The interviewers were very honest with me, Pluto remembers, almost too honest. Human resources staff, department managers and supervisors, and the plant manager told her about difficult employees and conflicts with management. If she took the job, she would become the first woman manufacturing supervisor ever in a Pepsi beverage plant. They didnt know how the men would treat her, and they admitted they couldnt actually guarantee her safety. They drove her to New Jersey to meet another plant manager and the division manufacturing and human resources directors. Back in New York, she was surprised to find the plant and warehouse managers waiting to ask her to go to dinner with them. She could tell they wanted her to take the job. The intense daylong interview had become an offer. She said yes.

My first day, I walked down the hallway to the sound of catcalls. I had made the mistake of wearing a dress. When my supervisor introduced me around, a few of the men made derogatory remarks, Pluto says. I wondered, what did I get myself into?

There was no womens uniform and no womens locker room. PepsiCo gave Pluto the same outfit as the men: a mans tucked-in white shirt, blue pants, a hard hat, shoes that would withstand the slippery wet floors, and Channellock pliers with long plastic handles. Her car had been stolen the previous day, so she rode the subway to work at 6:30 a.m. dressed like a man, hardhat in hand and pliers protruding from her back pocket.

Sadly, Plutos sister died that first week at PepsiCo. It was a hard week. Ive got to make this job work, she thought.

A Throwback to Another Era

Pornography was commonplace on the production floor, Pluto says. Id be talking to the line person and there would be an explicitly lewd photograph behind his head, right in my view.

Today, none of this behavior would be permitted, but Pluto was determined not to complain. She told herself she was lucky the men had stopped the catcalls and whistles once they realized she was there to stay.

For her first three months at PepsiCo, few men on the plant floor spoke to her. I got used to the environment, she says. I got used to the porn. But the dead silence really got to me. I tried to sit at lunch with the men, but no one would talk and the mood was tense, so I eventually sat alone.

Then, a union foreman announced to a large group of warehouse workers, You guys are funny. You take obscenities and curse words out of your vocabularies and you have nothing to say. This was the moment when the thaw began. Pluto realized that the silence was not negative. The men hadnt wanted to be disrespectful by cursing in her presence.

Her supervisors coached her to take a tougher approach with the men. But Pluto wasnt going to change who she was. She knew that the only way was to be herselfdirect but respectful and polite; asking, not demanding; setting clear expectations and holding everyone to them.

The men didnt understand why she was there. Some felt sorry for her. An older gentleman privately told her that his son could get her a nice job at Rockefeller Center. Some became protective. A union foreman yelled to a supervisor who was cursing in conversation with Pluto: Dont you ever use that language again in front of Patrice. Their concern extended to her safety on the subway. Late at night, they would make guys drive me home. I couldnt say no, she says.

Finally, she says, One of the meanest, most disrespectful mechanics, who never talked to the supervisors, approached me and let me know of a quality control issue he felt was important. That was when she knew she was going to make it.

Over time, she had come to feel at home in the plant. Her work was as rewarding for her as it was transformative for the plant. 兩My presence alone helped foster a workplace that was more respectful and inclusive, she says.

Pluto and Lindner inset centered.jpg

Patrice Pluto and her wife, Jane Lindner, met at a Pepsi plant in New Jersey and have been together for 25 years.
They married in 2013 when the Supreme Courts decision on same-sex marriage provided national acknowledgement of their marriage.

On the Road

When PepsiCo sold the New York City business, Pluto moved to a New Jersey plant, first as quality assurance manager and then as production manager. She had come a long way, but coming out as a lesbian at work was still years ahead. It wasnt the right time or place, she realized.

Pluto spent the next 12 years at Pepsi in tech support, traveling to plants to perform safety audits and help improve operations and quality. Representing PepsiCo, she made sure the independently owned plants were performing at peak levels. She traveled to facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. At one point, she says, I had 13 plants to oversee in Pennsylvania alone.

No matter where she went, she encountered few women. At one plant, a woman in the office kept a padlock on the bathroom door when she wasnt there so the men wouldnt use itwhich meant that Pluto was also locked out.

In 1997, she began training some plants in new techniques. The company had added juices and bottled water, and Pluto helped interpret PepsiCo needs and new plans to workers who had been producing and bottling only soda.

Director of Operations

PepsiCo promoted Pluto to the corporate level in 1998.

A lot was changing. New ingredients, supply chains and logistics, even more products, and packaging innovations introduced new challenges. Pluto was focused on supporting PepsiCos growth, collaborating on innovation teams that did product and packaging development, extensive R&D, long-term ingredient research and planning, marketing, and sales.

At 間眅埶AV, Pluto focused on biology, but she also credits the colleges program of liberal arts requirements for her strengths. Personally, 間眅埶AV sparked my passion for art and expanded my interests in literature, sociology, and psychology, she says. And professionally, I dont believe Id be where I am today without a liberal arts foundation. My communications skills and intellectual curiosity across disciplines, along with critical thinking honed in my college years, are at least as important in my work as pure scientific knowledge and methods.

Today Pluto supports the 37 plants owned by independent franchises, supplying about 25 percent of the US volume. She also directs the corporations operations communications to all domestic plants.

Im chained to my desk now, she jokes. I get to the plants only once in a while. But my mind is always focused on the manufacturing taking place there.

The atmosphere that had led to her uncertainty about coming out at work eventually began to change. As she wrote in the Huffington Post in 2013, Despite my continued career successes and accomplishments, 15 years passed before I was ready to come out as a lesbian at work. We all have our own path.

In 2004, PepsiCo already had formal policies on diversity and inclusion for women, employees with disabilities, seniors, religious people, and the LGBTQ community, but it saw an opportunity to improve the culture. Pluto helped advance this initiative by cofounding the East Coast chapter of EQUAL, PepsiCos LGBT & Allies employee resource group.

Coming out was a catalyst for me to grow personally and professionally, she says.

PepsiCo has honored Pluto with five Chairmans awardsfour for her work with teams achieving business goals and one, the Harvey 每. Russell Inclusion Award, for individual merit. Created in 2003 to reflect the achievements of the companys first African American VP, the Russell award recognizes those who have contributed significantly to diversity and inclusion. She is especially proud of this honor.

Plutos determination to overcome the challenges of her first job in the old New York plant helped her find within herself the qualities of leadership that she never imagined as a college student dreaming of a far different life. The seeming obstacles became the agents of change, helping Pluto express her true self and PepsiCo become a leader in workplace environment.

Thirty-seven years ago, Patrice Pluto stepped on the floor of a PepsiCo plant, the first woman to take a position in manufacturing with the organization.
Now the Director of Operations for PepsiCo North America beverages, Pluto touches on her experience and shares her viewpoints on women in manufacturing.

Leading Starts With Oneself

The biology grads only previous experience leading people was as a resident advisor in her dorm at 間眅埶AV College, and yet Patrice Pluto was able to manage and lead in ways that the most successful business leaders around the world have identified as essential to success.

At 25, when she accepted a job at PepsiCo, she had never envisioned herself in charge of an all-male group of workers so set in their ways. Despite challenges that appeared almost insurmountable, she was determined to make the job work.

As it turns out, she had all of the right tendencies.

A 2016 Harvard Business Review article by Sunnie Giles, president of Quantum Leadership Group, asked 95 leaders in 15 countries, What makes an effective leader? Giles grouped their responses into these five basic attributes:

  • Demonstrates strong personal ethics and provides a sense of safety
  • Empowers others
  • Fosters a sense of connection and belonging
  • Shows openness to new ideas and fosters development
  • Nurtures growth

Plutos instincts led her to apply these types of qualities in the plant, starting with her goal to be herself.

At first, her supervisors were concerned that the workers would run roughshod over her. They encouraged her to be tough and stern. But she knew she had to be herself if she was going to survive. That key choice allowed her to become more at ease and effective, helping to create a better environment for all.

Pluto learned that even the lowest-ranked manager can make a difference in how people on a job feel and function.

What makes workers happy, Pluto says, is what makes us all happy: a safe environment, respect, knowing that your job means something, and the positive impact of everyone on each other.