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Accept no substitutes: the launch of a new sweetner ignites a sleeping industry. Splenda's marketing success makes Debra Sandler the real deal.


EVEN AS A YOUNG PROFESSIONAL, Debra Sandler always challenged the status quo. In fact, one of her first missions was to dismantle what one executive dubbed "the African American old boys' network." When PepsiCo initiated an organizational reshuffling in the late 1980s, several African American vice presidents held an informal off-site meeting to develop strategies that would help black executives gain greater recognition from the C-suite. Sandler, then a marketing assistant at Pepsi, crashed the party.

Ron Parker, senior vice president of human resources for PepsiCo North America, recalls the actions of the feisty young exec: "She said, 'You guys are not going to [plan] how to get people in other positions and help them in their careers without me being a part of it and learning from it. If you think you can do this without having a diverse perspective, a female perspective, then you're no better than the old boy system you're trying to eliminate.'"

Sandler's impromptu speech served as a defining moment for the group. "We said, 'We have to reach out to the women of color [who are our] colleagues. We are allies, and we're all in this together,'" Parker recounts. "From that point on, Debra became part of our inner circle of advisers who helped shape the culture of PepsiCo with our senior staff."

Sandler's confidence and self-assuredness have been the hallmark of her illustrious career. Those attributes have given her the courage to go against the grain in business and in life. For instance, she chose motherhood at a time when she was rising in influence and position at PepsiCo. She displayed patience and fortitude in selecting the right company after being told by recruiters she'd lost her relevancy in the marketplace because of her extended maternity leave. And her leadership qualities have driven an innovative team to launch Splenda, a product that became the No. 1 sugar substitute in America in less than five years.

As worldwide president of McNeil Nutritionals L.L.C., an operating company of healthcare and beauty products giant Johnson & Johnson, since 2005, Sandler focuses on maintaining the integrity of her brands, maximizing growth opportunities, creating brand extensions and inspiring a crackerjack team of professionals.

Due to her efforts, Splenda dominates the sugar substitutes market, delivering more than $225 million in sales this year, according to research firm Information Resources Inc. "If it weren't for Splenda, sugar substitutes would not be doing so great," says Marcia Mogelonsky, a researcher at Mintel International Group, a market research firm. In addition to Splenda, Sandler's portfolio of brands includes Lactaid, a milk and dietary supplement for the lactose intolerant which grossed more than $97 million this year; Viactiv, a vitamin supplement that has generated more than $27 million in sales this year; and Benecol, a brand of products that aid in the reduction of cholesterol, which had $15.7 million in sales this year

Sandler's underlying strength can be found in her natural curiosity for the truth. She constantly seeks consumers' opinions and probes their needs. In test kitchens, for example, instead of offering cooking suggestions, her staff often spends half a day asking consumers for direction. She also takes a surgical approach to reaching various market segments, such as grassroots efforts in targeting Splenda to diabetics, who have an expansive word-of-mouth network. And because of increased media coverage of obesity and diabetes, she directed her sales team on selling the benefits of the product to medical professionals.


For her accomplishments as a master marketer and for providing dynamic corporate leadership--driving top performance through innovation and inspiration--Debra Sandler has been named the 2008 BLACK ENTERPRISE Corporate Executive of the Year.


Sandler joined Johnson & Johnson in 1999 as vice president of worldwide marketing for McNeil Specialty Products Co. to lay the groundwork for the Splenda launch. Over the past nine years, she's held several titles related to the sugar substitute's growth and brand extensions.

In the sweetener category, the blue and pink packets of Equal and Sweet'N Low, respectively, had maintained market share hegemony. In 2001, yellow--Splenda's trademark color--became the new flavor and energized the then-dormant sugar and sweeteners industry reportedly worth roughly $4 billion last year.

Splenda reported $34 million in annual sales, in 2000, the year it was introduced, compared with Equal's $84 million, according to Information Resources Inc. In 2002, 18 new sweetener products entered the market. Through aggressive marketing and consumer appeal, Splenda became the No. 1 low- and no-calorie sweetener in U.S. retail outlets the next year. By 2006, Splenda's sales soared to $212 million, while Equal's plummeted to $49 million.

As Splenda enjoyed robust sales, a key part of Sandler's marketing plan went sour. Merisant Co., the producer of Equal, filed a suit last year alleging that McNeil Nutritionals was misleading its customers in its advertisements with claims that Splenda is "made from sugar so it tastes like sugar." In a similar case in France, a judge ruled in favor of Merisant, stating that McNeil Nutritionals deliberately misled its customers with the ads. The company was ordered to pay $54,000 in damages. The U.S. case with Merisant was settled in May 2007. As part of the settlement, neither Merisant nor McNeil Nutritionals can disclose details of the case. McNeil Nutritionals and the Sugar Association in the U.S. are engaged in ongoing litigation about the advertising practices of each. Officials from McNeil Nutritionals, issued the following statement: "McNeil Nutritionals L.L.C., believes the claims brought by the Sugar Association are without merit, and are simply an attempt to accomplish in court what it can not accomplish in the market."

Sandler, however, remains focused. "As a manager, one of my strengths is being calm when there is turbulence. It's [not] about what other people might be doing and saying, but focusing on us and our business and [where] we excel and what do we do."

Today, Splenda's tagline reads: "It's made from sugar. It tastes like sugar. But it's not sugar." It's the No. 1 sugar substitute in the U.S. as Sandler's team works with Tare & Lyle, the British manufacturer of sucralose, Splenda's main ingredient, to introduce brand spin-offs.


On a warm mid-July day, Sandler appears both regal and relaxed in a cobalt blue, knitted St. John's suit--her demeanor consistent with her personal and professional style. Born in Venezuela and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, she draws on traits from both parents--her mother's dexterity at taking meager leftovers and turning them into gourmet meals and her father's unwavering commitment to excellence. "It was about pushing yourself and not settling to coast," Sandler says of the expectations of her father; an economist in the Trinidadian government.

Sandler found her niche in international relations. Receiving a bachelor's degree in business administration in international trade from Hofstra University in New York she studied abroad and became fluent in French and Spanish.


She began her career in 1985 as a package marketing analyst for Pepsi, and within a year she enrolled at New York University to get an M.B.A. By the time she graduated, in 1988, the enterprising exec was promoted to marketing assistant for the Pepsi Free brand. She had become adept at developing a cadre of mentors and company sponsors and, as a result, Sandler was given new assignments every 12 to 18 months. In her 13 years there, she learned every aspect of PepsiCo's consumer goods and restaurant businesses. Adds Parker: "She had built such a strong internal lifeline and track record based on results."

By the age of 35, Sandler had earned a reputation for reinvigorating brands. As a marketing director of Pepsi Slice, which dropped 14% in unit volume in 1992 and another 7% in 1993, she crafted a winning strategy: Develop better graphics, push toward an urban teen audience, lower the price, and add new flavors. She also hired the R&B group Boyz II Men to deliver the jingle. Nine months later, Slice sales increased 30% in Texas and Oklahoma, and 41% in Atlanta and the Carolinas.


She was promoted to senior marketing director, channel strategy and merchandising innovation in 1994, but Sandler still craved an international opportunity. "I kept saying, 'I'm serious; this is important to me. 'So I got what I thought was the dream job." In 1995, she was named marketing vice president, Caribbean Latin America, for Tricon Restaurants International, (now YUM! Brands), responsible for brand management of Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell. It was a new arena in which she had zero support from corporate headquarters. Sandler used the new position to expand her knowledge base, leverage her understanding of the region, and apply her bilingual skills.


At Tricon, managing a multimillion dollar budget and traveling 80% of the time, 37-year-old Sandler was at the peak of her career until two things happened: In 1997, PepsiCo spun off the restaurant division into an independent company, and she became pregnant.

Both circumstances forced this driven, and admittedly burned-out professional to pause and decide on her future as a mother and marketing executive. The original idea was to take an extended maternity leave, but after spending time at home with her baby daughter, Kiah, she decided to "off-ramp" to carefully plan the next phase of her life. She stayed home for 18 months.

When she decided to return to corporate America, Sandler was frustrated and disappointed by the cold response. She was challenged by executive recruiters who believed her talents as a marketer were no longer relevant due to the length of her hiatus. "At that time it felt like they treated me like I [was] dumb because I had become a stay-at-home morn for a couple of years," she recalls. "I mean, they looked at my resume and asked me if I can manage P&L. I'm like, Are you kidding?' There was this notion that I had lost my ability to run a business and my ability to lead."

After a five-month search, Johnson & Johnson expressed interest. The feeling was mutual. For Sandler, it was a good fit for several reasons. Although 66% of her job offers came from the restaurant business, she wanted to move away from marketing eateries--one of the major reasons she left PepsiCo. Also, McNeil Nutritionals was preparing to introduce Splenda, which jibed with Sandler's talent for repositioning brands. The chance to lay the foundation for a product launch added cache to the offer. "Plus [Johnson & Johnson] has the decentralized business model, where they allow each company to run their own ship without much heavy-handed pressure from the top," offers Harold Saftlas, an analyst with Standard & Poor's who reports on the pharmaceutical industry. It was perfect for Sandler, who thrives in autonomous environments.



Like a growing number of leaders, Sandler believes innovation is propelled by enthusiastic, engaged employees. "She likes to stretch talent," boasts Marc Robinson, a group chairman at Johnson & Johnson. "Her philosophy is, 'Stretch someone a bit and they'll surprise everyone, including themselves.'"

An advocate for training, she regularly invites coaches to help bolster her staff in two key areas: alignment and crucial conversation. "I am an alignment driver. So before decisions are made, I like to hear all of the alternative views around the table," she says. I have little to no patience for secondary agendas, duplicitous folks--it doesn't work If you have an issue, put it out on the table."

Sandler reduces conflicts through crucial conversation training--engaging in sometimes uncomfortable dialogue with a focus on a clear resolution. "That is, 'How do I tell Debra something she doesn't really want to hear?' But I need to hear it, right? It doesn't mean we're going to agree and hold hands, but we need to be able to have a conversation about that."

Calvin Schmidt, worldwide vice president of marketing and sales for McNeil Nutritionals, embraces her communication style. "[It] is a culture where you can literally share good news, bad news, or any news, and there are no repercussions for that. What it does is drive better creativity, which drives innovation."

Sandler also seeks to inspire her team to align around the prospect of balance. In her office she leads by example. "I talk a lot about my daughter, probably too much," she explains. "But I want people to see, to some extent, how I struggle with balancing my life, how I struggle to be in her life as much as I can while I'm also off to India and China and Brazil."

What's next for Sandler? Her dream job would be to serve as ambassador to the Bahamas when she retires. Until then, Sandler has products to position, campaigns to develop, and markets to conquer. And if past performance is an indicator, her success will continue to be sweet.

--Additional reporting by Maya Yette


Debra A. Sandler



Worldwide President for McNeil Nutritionals



Nine years with Johnson & Johnson. 13 years at PepsiCo Inc.


B.B.A., International Trade, Hofstra University 1982; M.B.A., Stern School of Business at New York University 1988

Interesting Fact

Born in Venezuela, raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Sandler is tri-lingual. She speaks fluent Spanish, French, English, and a little Portuguese.


Yardley, PA

Family First

In 1997 Sandler left corporate America for nearly two years to become a stay-at-home mom to daughter Kiah, now 11

Business Philosophy

I'm not a consensus builder; I am an alignment driver.
Sales of Sugar Substitutes

Splenda          60.8%
Sweet 'N Low       13%
Equal            11.5%
Private Labels    7.1%
Others            7.6%


Note: Table made from pie chart.
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Author:Alleyne, Sonia
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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