The Iron Range soda boss who beat Coke

A few years back I traveled to Atlanta as the arm candy of my wife, who was attending a conference there. I spent time as a tourist in a town seemingly run by the Coca-Cola company. Coke was all you could drink. All pop (yes, pop; I’m from Minnesota) was called Coke, even if it wasn’t Coke.

Visiting the “World of CocaCola” museum was one of the most overwhelming displays of marketing I’ve ever encountered. The international reach of the monolithic red-and-white logo was total.

And yet there is a reason Chisholm, Minnesota, is a Pepsi town. A guy who grew up on the Iron Range to become CEO of PepsiCo during the “Cola Wars” of the 1980s, was the only person to force the Coke empire into a defensive position.

Former Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico

Roger Enrico

That man was Roger Enrico. He died unexpectedly June 3 during a family vacation to the Cayman Islands. He was 71.

Enrico was born and raised in Chisholm, where his father was a foreman at an iron ore smelting plant. After graduating from Chisholm High School, he attended college in Massachusetts on an ROTC scholarship before serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

Enrico quickly worked his way up the snack food chain despite the lack of an MBA. Early success at Minnesota-based General Mills led to leadership positions with Frito-Lay, where he expanded the popularity of Fun-yuns and eventually led the company’s Japanese division.

His early and wild success with salty snacks got the attention of Pepsi-Cola, where he was hired as marketing chief and soon thereafter as the company’s CEO at the age of just 38.

Enrico was Pepsi’s general during the famous “Cola Wars” of the 1980s, something I remember as a kid. In fact, I can recall stringing a rope between an empty can of Coke and an empty can of Pepsi at my family’s junkyard and pretending it was a “bomb,” because of the combustable reaction that would have caused.

Enrico was the one who signed Michael Jackson to the biggest celebrity endorsement deal of all time. “The Choice of a New Generation.” The Pepsi Generation.” “The Pepsi Challenge.” These terms were all part of Enrico’s tenure atop Pepsi.

And they worked.

Pepsi grew from a small share of the soft drink market to more than 30 percent. The company’s ascension so rattled Coke that it rolled out the infamous “New Coke” product, which is still seen as one of the worst marketing decisions by a major company in modern history. Enrico entitled his autobiography “The Other Guy Blinked” because of this.

By bringing in new brands, Pepsi found its way to near parity with Coke. Though Pepsi never overtook the global giant CocaCola, you can now find the two products alongside each other in most every part of the United States and across much of the world. Enrico is largely credited as the reason for this fact.

Enrico retired from Pepsi in 2001. The last section of his career was spent as Chairman of Dreamworks Animation, during the years of the first “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda” movies. He retired from that position in 2012 to Dallas, Texas, where he lived with his family and enjoyed frequent fishing and scuba diving trips. He was on a scuba diving trip when he died last Friday.

It could be said that it’s all just sugar water. So, too, are most of our worldly endeavors. Nevertheless, Roger Enrico exemplified the American Dream that even the son of a Iron Range iron smelter can one day extract riches from sweet nectar of hard work and big ideas.

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