Kraft Heinz CEO tells students to build their own career paths in Kellogg talk


Colin Boyle/The Daily Northwestern

Kraft Heinz CEO Bernardo Hees speaks at Leverone Hall on Monday. Hees urged the audience to be adventurous with their career choices and encouraged students to ask questions.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Gameday Editor

Macaroni and cheese with ketchup might be a bad food combination, but Kraft Heinz CEO Bernardo Hees thinks the businesses behind each are a perfect match.

“If you see the whole equation of value,” Hees said, “you see that we have a big component of synergies, but also a big component of growth coming from international markets.”

Hees addressed a crowd of about 400, mostly Kellogg students, Monday evening in Leverone Auditorium as part of the Kellogg “Brave Leader” series, detailing his past experience and his plans to grow the world’s fifth-largest food company. He connected with the MBA candidates in the audience, drawing several laughs as he dispensed advice for the next generation of corporate executives.

Just 47 years old, Hees is in his fourth CEO role as the head of Kraft Heinz. He landed his first executive gig at age 34 leading a failing Brazilian railroad company, an unconventional experience Hees said helped him considerably later in his career.

He urged the audience to be similarly adventurous with their own career choices.

“You’re all going to get a job. There’s absolutely no chance you don’t get a job,” Hees said, encouraging risk-taking. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s life.”

Hees’ choice to go to a railroad company came at a time when many of his business school classmates were going to web-based startups that were booming in the late 1990s. He valued an experience that allowed him to “grow at (his) own pace,” and working in the operations-intensive railroad industry taught him a hands-on work ethic he carried into the rest of his working life.

But despite that background, Hees added oftentimes the best thing a CEO can do is sit back and listen.

“CEOs have the questions,” he said. “If you want to be a good leader someday, learn how to listen and ask good questions.”

Hees studied economics as an undergraduate and got his start in the finance industry, but ultimately came back to business because he wanted to work on something he could more easily see and understand. Hees told The Daily he saw opportunity in working for the Brazilian railroad and was quickly proven right, ascending to be the company’s chief financial officer within a year and a half of starting.

Kraft Heinz, formed through a merger in 2015, is just the latest challenge for Hees, and his newness to Chicago still shows: The food CEO told The Daily he prefers ketchup on his hot dogs.

But that could change. Hees offered a lifelong attitude toward learning as advice for his younger self during the talk, citing business magnate Warren Buffett as an example of somebody who, even at his advanced age, tries to learn everything he can about his investments.

“The best championship is the one that’s about to start,” he said. “When you have this mentality about learning, about making mistakes, correcting them and moving forward … that always helped me.”

Weinberg senior Allie Baxter, a former intern and incoming corporate management trainee with Kraft Heinz, attended the talk and said Hees’ remarks matched her experience with the CEO in the company.

“He’s a very visible person in Kraft Heinz, and he puts in the facetime on the floor,” Baxter said.

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