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Kristen Smith Wenker – General Mills: Message Wizard

Kristen Smith WenkerYou can follow all the interview etiquette and recruiting philosophy you want. But sometimes fate, topped with a sprinkle of naive bravado, is the best recipe for landing the job of your dreams.

Just ask Kristen Smith Wenker.

In 1980 college senior Wenker and her roommate were comparing notes about job leads in their University of Minnesota dorm room. The roommate mentioned that she turned down an internship with General Mills. Wenker was incredulous and decided she would try for the job.

For the next two weeks, Wenker dialed up the roommate’s contact at General Mills. At first, she got no response; and when she did get one, it was lukewarm.

Still, she landed an interview. Wenker buried herself in piles of General Mills research. Flipping to the last page of the annual report, she glanced at the senior leadership team. There, four slots down the list, was the name of the executive she had been calling for two weeks, Paul Parker, a top General Mills executive and civic leader. “Suddenly it occurs to me: I will not be interviewing with the local head of PR. I am reaching way, way up the chain,” Wenker says.

On interview day, Wenker survived the probing questions posed by Parker (with eyebrows arched over the top of his black half-rim bifocals) and earned a paid internship in the corporate communication department of General Mills. By day two, she was editing copy on the company’s the annual report.

Today, 28 years later, Wenker is the vice president of investor relations for General Mills, a job that puts her on the front line fielding questions about the giant manufacturer from Wall Street analysts, institutional investors, the global press, and individual shareholders. Investor relations (IR) departments handle a specialized segment of corporate communications. Professionals in this field take the often-complicated financial and operational reports of a company and translate them into language that any potential investor from a fund manager to a first-time shareholder — could understand. “It is the coolest job in corporate America,” she quips.

Her story holds a clear message for eager college grads: “If you are certain about the company you want to work for, you’ve got to do everything you can until you get a definite no,” Wenker advises.

For Wenker, herself a product of the Midwest, General Mills was a company that felt like home. She grew up in a suburb of downtown Minneapolis, a city surrounded by farms, dairies, a strong German population and an allegiance to the Big G cereals: Cheerios, Wheaties, and Lucky Charms. So when Wenker graduated from high school and headed off to the University of Minnesota, she declared a major in German and a minor in business with thoughts of joining a multi-national company with headquarters, or at least a presence, in Germany.

Within a few years, Wenker realized that the German track was forcing her to beat a lonely path to a P.h.D. in German literature, “the single most depressing body of literature,” she says. “Faust is light comedy compared to what I was reading about children dying and earthquakes. I’d have been be suicidal if I kept that up.”

Wenker changed her major to journalism with an eye toward advertising agency work. A meeting at the Public Relations Student Society of America introduced Wenker to public relations work, and Wenker designed a pro bono PR campaign for a county foster care program striving to recruit more families.

She had found her groove. “I decided then and there that this (public relations) was the corporate communications route I wanted to take to be a business communicator,” Wenker says. “That’s what drove my class choices for the rest of my major.”

When it was time to job search, Wenker’s advisor offered advice that struck a chord: “Find a company whose products and culture you believe in because it will make doing the job easier.”

Indeed, once Wenker started her internship at General Mills, she was energized by the corporate culture, which put an emphasis on a quality product and smart, creative employees. After about a month interning in the corporate communications department in 1980, the company hired Wenker full time. Over the next year, she wrote speeches, press releases, and newsletter pieces. Like a metro reporter on a daily newspaper, Wenker’s beat was General Mills — interviewing the people who made all the separate departments and committees of General Mills work.

“If management was going to give a speech on high performance work systems, I would go interview the guy who runs the supply chain and figure out how to explain it in a way that people can understand,” Wenker says. “It’s accumulated knowledge over time. A story at a time, an interview at a time, you build this fabric of knowledge about how your company generates profitable growth, delivers value for shareholders and creates great food products for customers.”

After a year on the job, Wenker realized that advancing through the company’s investor relations department required more than a journalism degree. In order to speak confidently with analysts about cash flow, income statements and gross margins, she needed number crunching skills that only an MBA could offer. She enrolled in University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. For three years, she juggled work during the day and B-school at night. General Mills reimbursed her for tuition, and Wenker graduated in 1985 with a firm understanding of the quantitative side of business.

In 1987, she moved to a marketing assignment in the Big G cereal division, then to Investor Relations, and was named director of financial communications in 1992.

Today, as vice president of investor relations, Wenker’s most intense weeks at General Mills are the ones when the company reports its quarterly earnings. As the financials are being readied in the accounting department, Wenker and her team are researching the underlying drivers of the quarter’s numbers, drafting press releases, and preparing for conduct conference calls. There are lengthy meetings to meet the post-Sarbanes-Oxley transparency guidelines and heart-to-heart strategic message conversations with the company’s top C-suite execs. Then there are the telephone and Web conferences, followed by two or three days of follow-up calls from investors and reporters.

Richard “Rick” Lund, vice president and controller of General Mills, says Wenker is one of those rare individuals who fully understands — and can communicate — both the quantitative and qualitative.

“Kris’ knowledge of this company is tremendous. It is not just a parroting of information. She goes out and finds the information and asks the questions that help her shape the message our investors need to have,” Lund says. “She is very confident and clear in sharing and influencing that message with our senior executives. She’s able to be very forthright and convincing about how investors are going to best understand company information.”

That daily opportunity to work with the senior-most management team and be involved in the loop of evolving company strategy is what keeps Wenker excited and motivated in her job.

“If you’re intellectually curious and nosy by nature and you like a constant challenge of learning something new… this is the best job in corporate America,” she says.

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