CDO interview: Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer, PepsiCo

Multinational food, snack and beverage firm PepsiCo is halfway through a five-year digital transformation strategy that aims to create ‘a totally different company’

Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer at PepsiCo, is an experienced executive who is on a mission to use technology to help change the operational processes of the multinational food, snack and beverage company for the better.

“My digital transformation ambitions involve a five-year journey and we are now two-and-a-half years into that journey,” she says. “We are totally on track, both in terms of bandwidth and deliverables. And by the end of this process, I want us to be a totally different company.”

Kanioura says it’s important to understand the scale of the transformation. Rather than using digital systems and services to alter what the business does and how it operates, her aim is to use a range of tools and techniques to improves business efficiency, effectiveness and performance.

“That doesn’t mean creating a different type of company that relies on technology to do everything,” she says. “But it would be a superior company in terms of using technology, digital and data, so that my team can drive even better results for the wider organisation.”

Getting a thirst for transformation

Kanioura joined PepsiCo in September 2020 after 13 years with consultant Accenture. Before that, she was in academia.

“My background has always been theoretical,” she says, suggesting that her time as a consultant allowed her to analyse different problems across industries, to find commonalities, and to develop functional capabilities that suited the use case.

“Part of the reason why I joined PepsiCo was that it was probably the only company I hadn’t worked with in my consulting years,” she says. “It was a great challenge. For someone like me, who has a digital and technology background, there were a lot of opportunities to take this company to the next growth curve.”

Before joining, Kanioura spoke with PepsiCo chairman and chief executive Ramon Laguarta and met a “great visionary”. Rather than just being focused on current performance, he highlighted how the key to long-term success would be continued transformation by creating much better experiences for the firm’s consumers and its employees.

She says what really appealed was the role that she would be expected to play in this change programme. And now, as PepsiCo’s first-ever chief strategy and transformation officer, Kanioura oversees the company’s end-to-end digitisation strategy and a team of more than 700 data engineers, software engineers and data scientists.

In her broad C-suite role, Kanioura is responsible for a host of key business areas, including corporate strategy, mergers and acquisitions, transformation, change management, value realisation, digital products and services, product management, software engineering, process engineering, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).

“This role gives me the opportunity to do everything from defining the strategy of this company, to translating that into executable digital components, to rethinking the processes of the organisation, and then onto translating that work into insights and faster actions. And this is where the data analytics, AI and software engineering comes into the mix,” she says.

Creating solid foundations for change

Kanioura says her first year in situ at PepsiCo was focused on solidifying the company’s five-year digital transformation strategy.

“That was about articulating what we needed to do – what are the big bets, what are the priorities, what is the roadmap, and what are the huge enablers?” she says. “Having everyone aligned was a great achievement. The top 200 people in the company knew exactly what we would yield in terms of results, how we were going to do it, and where we would start.”

With expectations set, Kanioura says her second year at PepsiCo was all about delivery. She says the big achievement during that period was delivering results to time and on budget. While that might sound like a straightforward aim, external factors played a part.

Global macroeconomic and geopolitical instability meant meeting targets on schedule and in a cost-effective manner was far from simple. Today, her team continues to focus on effective delivery.

“We must keep an eye on the ball, so we don’t sacrifice the long-term success of this company for short-term performance”

Athina Kanioura, PepsiCo

“We must keep an eye on the ball, so we don’t sacrifice the long-term success of this company for short-term performance,” she says.

“That’s about ensuring we deliver on our commitments in two areas: one is the original horizontal base, which is mainly about the enterprise data platform; and the second is about vertical capability from a programme perspective, which is focused on kicking off and rolling out integrated business planning.”

The first of these commitments – the enterprise data platform – has been delivered ahead of time and within budget. Microsoft is PepsiCo’s biggest data partner and the company uses an Azure data lake. However, Kanioura doesn’t believe in fully outsourcing the development of the data platform. Her team of internal data engineers completes most of the work and their effort is bolstered by the tactical use of external integrators.

The integrated business planning system, meanwhile, allows people in the business to make forecasts for the next three years across supply planning, financial planning and commercial planning as one centralised process. “In times of uncertainty, supply chain shocks or manufacturing shortages, that gives you a lot of visibility,” says Kanioura.

Once again, the development approach is mix and match – external provision from technology company o9 is mixed with internal expertise.

“The brain, the analytics pane, the data integration and the user experience are all internal resources that we have built – we want to own the brain of the integrated business planning system,” she says.

Delivering big programmes of work

In terms of horizontal projects that span PepsiCo’s operations, Kanioura says the next stage of digital transformation involves three big programmes of work, one of which is honing the core enterprise data platform that has already been built.

The second initiative centres on core system modernisation. Her team is currently in the middle of rolling out SAP S/4Hana. That programme involves moving from a range of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to a single, cloud-based instance across the company. “As you can imagine, that’s a big effort and a lot of work for a company of our size,” she says.

The third programme of work involves app rationalisation and cloud modernisation. This initiative requires the movement of hundreds of applications to the cloud. The company has a roadmap to finish the migration process within the next three years. “We have a lot of legacy applications, so this is a big project,” she says.

Building on these horizontal foundations, Kanioura says her team will aim to create strong business capabilities during this timeframe. While PepsiCo usually markets and sells products through other organisations, such as retailers, the company also wants to develop its business-to-consumer (B2C) channel and look for ways to boost customer experiences.

Commercial excellence is another area where Kanioura is looking to enhance business capabilities and build a true omnichannel experience.

“That’s not easy in a CPG [consumer packaged goods] context, where you rely on many parties,” she says, referring to a complex range of potential avenues to market, including retailers, distributors and the company’s own sales channels.

Kanioura will also continue to work on integrated business planning, which is about ensuring there’s a single source of the truth for managers now and in the future, and supply chain transformation, which is centred on boosting operational process across key areas, such as packaging and logistics.

Finally, she refers to employee experience and the requirement to ensure staff can access information intuitively from knowledge management systems.

“That work covers everything from hire to retire and onto onboarding and upskilling,” says Kanioura. “I don’t want people to have to go through five different logins just to get their payroll information.”

Growing with sustainability in mind

While Kanioura is clear on her key digital transformation targets, she says another factor – sustainability – is a crucial overarching objective that underlies all the work her team and the broader business will complete during the next decade.

Kanioura’s team manages a range of systems and programmes to ensure environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors are considered in all business decisions. Here, the enterprise data platform that her team is working to build and hone will be crucial.

Rather than holding data relating to ESG targets in disparate systems across the enterprise, Kanioura says the consolidated data platform will be a single source of truth where people across PepsiCo can track and trace sustainability performance indicators.

More generally, the company’s continued efforts to improve the environment and the broader communities it serves are known as Pep+ (PepsiCo Positive), which PepsiCo CEO Laguarta describes as “the future of our company”. The initiative aims to ensure the products the company sells are produced, shipped and sold in as sustainable manner as possible.

“It’s focused on how we can create a positive environment for the world, for the food value chain, for the communities, and the people we serve,” says Kanioura.

“For the data foundation, we’ve decided to build it ourselves. For other capabilities, we work with startup partners to address the specific problems that we have.”

The pioneering work with startups is led by David Schwartz, vice-president of PepsiCo Labs, which is a specialist team under Kanioura’s stewardship, tasked with harnessing external innovation. Schwartz explained to Computer Weekly last year how the lab has scaled more than 30 startups in more than 200 countries so far.

These innovations stretch across a broad range of areas, including preventing water leaks in factories to developing bio-based thermoplastic for product display stands. The aim in the longer term, says Kanioura, is to ensure the innovative technologies her team provides are helping the rest of the PepsiCo business to grow in a positive manner.

“Sustainability needs to be in everything we do in this company moving forward, whether it’s in terms of planning sustainably, buying sustainably or selling sustainably,” she says. 

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