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Sibling revelry

Sisters share stories of going from Jersey Shore home to corner suites at Fortune 500 firms

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Sisters Denise 
Morrison, left, and Maggie Wilderotter are two of just 21 female CEOs 
at U.S. Fortune 
500 companies.
Sisters Denise Morrison, left, and Maggie Wilderotter are two of just 21 female CEOs at U.S. Fortune 500 companies. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Sister chief executives Denise Morrison, of Campbell Soup, and Maggie Wilderotter, of Frontier Communications, are leading by example when they urge female executives to take risks to further their careers: both are making high-stakes bids to transform their 100-year-old-plus companies to succeed in a fast-changing world.

Morrison, 59, and Wilderotter, 58, grew up as the Sullivan sisters of Elberon at the Jersey Shore, went off to climb corporate ladders around the country and now are among only 21 female CEOs in the Fortune 500. They talked about leadership and their career strategies during a wide-ranging conversation last week before more than 400 executives gathered at Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City.

“Sometimes, it's riskier not to take risks,” Morrison said. Faced with slow growth in its core soup business, Camden-based Campbell will double product launches to 200 in the fiscal year that starts July 1. And in August, Morrison led the largest acquisition in Campbell's 144-year history: the $1.5 billion purchase of Bolthouse Farms, which makes salad dressings and healthy beverages, and is among the largest carrot suppliers in the United States.

What she heard at the time, Morrison said, was: “'Denise! Carrots? Really? Are you crazy?' Yet I had a vision for moving Campbell's into fresh food” to reach the children of baby boomers. And with future food sales growth expected to come from emerging markets, “I have been on planes to China, Russia, Brazil and India to find the smartest way to expand our footprint.”

Wilderotter made a bold move to triple the size of her company three years ago by acquiring the wireline telephone business of 14 states from Verizon; Stamford, Conn.-based Frontier now operates in 27 states and she is leading the transition to broadband. “This is not for the faint of heart; it's not easy to transform an organization,” she said. “But you can teach employees how to manage risk in the right way, on behalf of customers.”

Determined to get on a corporate board of directors while she was working as a general manager at Kraft, Morrison said she “literally pounded the pavement in New York City and talked to anyone who would listen to me. Doors were slammed in my face, and I kept at it.” And it worked: In 2002, she was invited onto the board of Ballard Power Systems, a maker of hydrogen fuel cells, where she served until 2005. That got her on the automotive corporate radar, and three years later, she was tapped for the board of Goodyear Tire. “Doors open for you if you know what you want and you go after it,” she said.

When Wilderotter was working for a cable television software vendor, she was determined, at age 28, to get on the board of the National Cable Television Association, which had two slots on its board for vendors. “I looked in the bylaws and I saw that I could collect proxy votes: there were 7,000 vendors to the cable industry, who were members of the NCTA, and I called them and sent them letters and I got elected,” becoming only the second women to serve on the board. “You have to take control and change the game.”

Several years ago, during a visit to her in-laws, Morrison put her personal mission statement on paper: “To serve as a leader, live a balanced life and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference.”

“We do strategic plans for companies and for brands, but we don't do strategic plans for ourselves, and that's a lesson I pass on to many of the women I mentor,” Morrison said.

During the event, sponsored by KPMG's New Jersey Women's Network-to-Network, the sisters gently ribbed each other at times. For example, Wilderotter said she doesn't have a personal mission statement and added Morrison “is the older sister and is more structured; I'm a little more situational” to which Morrison replied: “There's a compliment in there somewhere.”

Wilderotter said she created her own path at various points in her career. “My advice to young women is to find out where the gaps are in your organization and then go fill them; usually they are (challenges) that nobody else wants to take on.”

Morrison said it's key to build strong networks of colleagues and mentors, inside and outside their organizations: “Your ability will take you so far and your relationships will take you the rest of the way.”

The sisters credit their supportive spouses for helping them integrate their family and work lives. Wilderotter has two sons; Morrison has two daughters and a month-old granddaughter. “Work and life is never balanced in the jobs we have — there is no such thing,” Wilderotter said. In your work life, “you make a contract to do a job, but you should do the same thing for your personal life — then make sure they are integrated and make sense.”

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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