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Mark Maldonado is engineering group manager at Frito-Lay

Snack foods are very serious business. This mathematician/ME has opened and optimized plants worth multi-millions in the U.S. and Mexico

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Mark Maldonado: as a manager and an exec, a responsibility to pave the way for others.

Mark Maldonado: as a manager and an exec, a responsibility to pave the way for others.

Ever wonder how those Frito-Lay Stax potato crisps got into that enticing tube? Mark Maldonado put them there.

Not personally, of course. But as engineering group manager and a member of the optimization team for ops and corporate engineering for Frito-Lay North America (Plano, TX), he led the group that got the machinery running smoothly.

In 2003 Maldonado was assigned to the manufacturing facility in Mexicali, Mexico which turns out Frito-Lay's Stax brand. Those are the potato crisps that have taken nearly 20 percent of competitor Pringles' share of the market.

"This process was far more complex than anything we've ever tried in the organization," Maldonado says. "It was a very difficult startup."

Enriching experience
Getting started meant managing as many as seventy-five technical folks, including engineers, consultants and contractors, on site at times during that first year. Maldonado just about lived in Mexicali while solving the core issues. He still spends about a week out of every month there, working to optimize the operation further and reduce costs.

"It was a very enriching experience because of the highly technical environment and the complexity of the operation," he says.

Corporate team on site
Frito-Lay is the convenient foods division of PepsiCo (Purchase, NY). The parent company employs more than 44,000 people.

Maldonado is one of five transformational productivity managers, interfacing with four more managers on the core engineering side. They lead a total engineering organization of about a hundred.

"The essential task of my group is scientific and technical analysis of process variability," he says. "We use sophisticated methods to be sure our information is statistically relevant. Then we scan the world of technology to find ways to lower the costs."

In industry a corporate "transformation" team isn't always welcome at a day-to-day operation. But in Mexicali, complex technical challenges opened the door for his team of experts. "This partnership between operations and corporate engineering is one of the strongest I've ever seen," he says.

Bilingual and bicultural
Being bilingual and bicultural helped him get the job done. Maldonado grew up in northern Mexico. He spoke only Spanish until he went to school, where English was taught. He learned technical Spanish while studying math at a college in Mexico.

"There's is a world of difference between conversational and technical Spanish," he notes, and he finds both useful. "The conversational language can be critical to building the right relationships and inspiring cooperation and trust. It's also a big plus in negotiating local design and construction contracts to get the most value for services.

"It's an environment of trust," he concludes. "In order to be successful, people must trust you not only to do a good job, but to care about them and what happens to them. It's the human side of our business."

Moving north
In 1970 Maldonado's parents sold the family estate in northern Mexico and moved to the border city of Brownsville, TX. His father started a taxi company on the Mexican side of the border, so Mark and his two brothers and sister grew up in a bicultural environment.

Enchanted by the U.S. space program, Maldonado envisioned an exciting future. "From a very early age I was fascinated by science, especially space," he recalls.

But before he got down to studying engineering, he took a yearlong detour into baseball. He'd been a Little Leaguer, getting as far as the nationals, and in high school he played baseball, tennis and soccer. So when a semi-pro team recruited him, he was ready to get to work as a pitcher and shortstop.

"The level of play went up so much," he says. "I played a lot, and I loved it, but then I said, 'I'd better go back to school.'"

Starting at Frito-Lay
After earning a 1976 BS in math at the Monterrey, Mexico, Institute of Technology, Maldonado went on to a 1978 AA in math at what is now the University of Texas at Brownsville, and a 1982 BSME from the University of Texas-Austin.

Then he joined Frito-Lay, where he spent five years as a process and packaging engineer. As process engineering lead he worked on design, procurement, installation and start-up of a new plant in Bakersfield, CA boasting five production lines.

While there he connected with Bakersfield plant manager Jim Rich, who recently retired as a Frito-Lay senior VP. Rich's insightful coaching, Maldonado says, helped his career. "The impact he made on me was just incredible," he recalls fondly.

Quaker Oats and beyond
In 1987 Maldonado moved to Quaker Oats (Chicago, IL). He was sent to California's Bay Area as division packaging engineering manager, and led the design team for a state-of-the-art pasta packaging system. He also picked up experience with confectionary packaging at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co, which Quaker owned at that time.

He found the work fascinating, but the location wasn't a happy one for his family. So in 1987 he moved to Borden Co (Columbus, OH) as director of engineering for its snacks business. He led an ambitious, $100 million capital improvement program there.

But Borden sold the snacks division in 1994, and Maldonado returned to Texas. He tried his own consulting business, and then worked for Pioneer Frozen Foods (Duncanville, TX).

Return to Frito-Lay
In 2001 R&D; VP Eric Farabaugh brought Maldonado back to Frito-Lay. The company was expanding into baked goods like Doritos and Tostitos, and they needed Maldonado to build bakery facilities. He began with a bakery project and the reduced-fat Doritos expansion.

Since returning to Frito-Lay he has held positions of increasing responsibility: senior engineer, packaging engineering manager for North America, capacity boost engineering manager, group manager for productivity and now engineering group manager in the transformational processing organization.

Maldonado takes his position as a role model seriously. He credits Frito-Lay for its diversity and inclusion policies, which result in a workplace with employees from all over the world. He's active in employee development networks and speaks at local schools with large Hispanic populations. "As a manager and an executive, I feel I have a responsibility to help pave the way for others," he says.

In the course of moves and job changes Maldonado's work-life balance was challenged, but he has managed to stay close to his four children. "I had a very difficult time balancing my career and my life," he says. "But I was fortunate to have the backing of my organization."

Maldonado looks forward to advancing at PepsiCo, Frito-Lay's parent company. "As change engulfs our industry, I want to make a difference in order to advance our business agenda," he says.


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