James O’Neal - 2022 Global Supply Chain Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Hall of Fame
Retired Frito-Lay International president and CEO James O’Neal’s entry into the supplier-diversity arena started with a phone call from Dallas, Texas, Mayor Wes Wise in 1973 asking him to join a meeting of the Dallas Purchasing Council.
He wasn’t sure exactly what the group did, but he agreed to go to the meeting. He left that meeting with an assignment to head up a task force to determine whether the Dallas Purchasing Council should affiliate with what was then newly established National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc. That task force assignment was the start of his early leadership in minority-business-development efforts.
As the task force leader, O’Neal offered Frito-Lay’s corporate jet to fly members of the Dallas Purchasing Council to Austin for a daylong meeting.
“By 2:30 [p.m.], we had finished a three-year plan for how to grow this council, and everybody had agreed to it,” he said.
O’Neal then proposed that the group approach the Fort Worth Purchasing Council about joining forces. While there was some initial reluctance, ultimately, the Fort Worth Purchasing Council agreed to form a joint organization.
“That became Day One of the Dallas/Fort Worth Minority Supplier Development Council,” he said. “That [decision] allowed us to go to New York and become affiliated with the national council with a lot more strength. It all happened in a truly short period of time. We all just did it, and we didn’t allow naysayers.”
At the time, the Dallas Purchasing Council’s staff and offices consisted of an executive on loan and a floor in a furniture warehouse with a desk, a chair, a coffee pot and a broken photocopy machine.
O’Neal offered Elliot Stephenson, an executive on loan, the job of executive director of the newly established DFW MSDC. He then approached the Dallas Citizens Council to fund a fully furnished professional office suite.
“We went from an executive on loan to a full-time executive director and from a furniture warehouse to a six-room office suite,” he said. “We were open for business.”
O’Neal recognized that DFW MSDC’s success would require corporate participation, and he used his role as Frito-Lay North America Inc.’s vice president of manufacturing operations to establish the Frito-Lay Minority Business Task Force.
To make sure the task force would have an impact, he required that it include senior leaders from every department purchasing goods or services throughout the company. The group put together guidelines and launched its efforts with an event that allowed minority suppliers to meet Frito-Lay buyers.
Under O’Neal’s leadership, Frito-Lay began encouraging its nonminority suppliers to develop their own minority-business-development efforts, and it began to actively promote its desire to do business with minority businesses.
“We weren’t going to give anybody a free ride. They had to qualify based on price, quality and service,” he said. “But we decided there might be people who were close — maybe their price was 10% too high or they weren’t quite agile enough.”
To help those suppliers reach the standards required to do business with Frito-Lay, the company assembled mini-McKinsey & Co.-like task forces consisting of teams with experts from purchasing, finance and other key business functions to consult with minority businesses to help them grow and improve.
Going national — and international
In the mid-1980s, O’Neal was elected chairman of the NMSDC board of directors, and under his leadership, the board strengthened the national organization and hired the legendary Harriet Michel to lead it.
He had been promoted to executive vice president of PepsiCo Foods & Beverages International Ltd. To expand corporate participation in regional councils, he spoke at many regional council meetings to highlight the ways supplier-diversity efforts were benefiting Frito-Lay and PepsiCo Inc. He issued the “PepsiCo Challenge,” encouraging corporations to spend $100 million with minority suppliers.
Because of the leadership of PepsiCo and Frito-Lay in the supplier-diversity arena, O’Neal was chosen to lead a delegation to the United Kingdom to meet with then Prince Charles to expand supplier-diversity efforts globally. Prince Charles assembled the board of directors of one of his personal charities — Business in the Community — a business-community outreach program promoting corporate responsibility. The board consisted of about 50 of the top CEOs throughout Europe, allowing the delegation to share U.S. supplier-diversity initiatives with businesses throughout Europe.
Even though he is no longer actively involved in minority-business-development efforts, he continues to believe the work is vital.
“I’ve always been a firm believer that economic development is the way to solve some of our societal problems,” O’Neal said. “We’ve got to eliminate the wealth gap we’ve talked about for centuries, and this [minority-business development] helps move us toward that.”
To learn more about Frito-Lay International, visit fritolay.com.