In Los Angeles, Dallas, New York and other big cities, television viewers are being treated to a new form of entertainment: dueling colas. Pepsi-Cola, runner-up to Coke in sales, opened fire against its chief competitor with a “taste test” commercial, which compared the two beverages and concluded that “Nationwide, more Coca-Cola drinkers prefer Pepsi to Coke.” Coke retaliated with a spoof of the Pepsi spot (“One sip is not enough”), and the war is still escalating.
The decision to tackle the leader head-on—an approach considered too risky by many admen—was made by Donald Kendall, 55, Pepsi’s self-assured chief executive. As the $440,000-a-year chairman of PepsiCo, the parent company, Kendall presides over an empire with sales last year of $2.3 billion. It includes North American Van Lines, Wilson Sporting Goods, Monsieur Henri Wines, Ltd. and Frito-Lay. So far Kendall’s taste-test gamble has paid off. For the third quarter of 1976, PepsiCo earnings jumped a record 25 percent, much of it from increased cola sales. “I love to see Pepsi and Coke go to it in the marketplace,” says Kendall, as he tosses a log into the mirrored fireplace of his elegant offices in suburban Purchase, N.Y.
Kendall is no stranger to confrontations. A longtime pal of Richard Nixon, he was present at the famous 1959 “kitchen debate” in Moscow between then Vice-President Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev. On the sidelines Kendall scored his own triumph. While photographers snapped away, he handed Khrushchev a Pepsi. “It was a hot day,” Kendall recalls, “and he wound up drinking eight.”
After Kendall took over Pepsi in 1963, he made clear to Joan Crawford, widow of the former chairman, Alfred Steele, that he would be the company’s chief spokesman. And in 1965 Kendall explained the company’s merger with Frito-Lay by saying he wanted to make everybody thirstier for Pepsi by putting more salt in the snacks.
The son of a dairy farmer from the Washington town of Sequim (pronounced “squim”), Kendall drove a milk truck after high school, then dropped out of Western Kentucky State Teachers College after a year. He served as a Navy pilot, joining Pepsi as a fountain-syrup salesman in 1947. Within a decade the dynamic, persuasive Kendall was head of the company’s international division.
His presence at the kitchen debate ultimately paved the way for Kendall to give the Soviets their own Pepski generation. In 1972 Pepsi became the first U.S. company to manufacture a consumer product in the U.S.S.R. It now has two plants operating in the Black Sea area, and within 18 months will open three more in Moscow, Leningrad and Estonia.
Kendall is not all business. He has an impressive art collection in the Connecticut mansion where he lives with his wife and their children, Donald, 9, and Kent, 7. He also has two grown children from a previous marriage. An avid sportsman, he jogs every morning at 7, skis in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and goes salmon fishing in Iceland.
Kendall has maintained strong ties with the former President. After Nixon lost the 1960 election, Pepsi became one of his law firm’s biggest clients. Nixon played the piano at the reception following Kendall’s 1965 wedding to his second wife, the Baroness Reudt von Collenberg, then went on to convince her to become an American citizen. Kendall and the ex-President still team up for golf at San Clemente.
In the next administration it is likely that Coca-Cola chairman J. Paul Austin, a Carter supporter, will have the inside track with the White House. “That doesn’t bother me,” insists Kendall, glancing at the autographed photo of Richard Nixon on his office wall. “Austin took a stand politically—and I applaud him for it.”