Janitor-turned-PepsiCo exec: ‘Act like you own the company’

Published on September 5, 2019

Richard Montanez knows an opportunity when he sees it.

A former Frito-Lay janitor, Montanez is the culinary genius behind Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the pop-culture phenomenon that scored him a job as a marketing executive at PepsiCo, a reported net worth of more than $14 million and a movie in the making by Fox Searchlight with Eva Longoria in the director’s chair.

Can’t waste those carbs

He created the best-selling snack with some Cheetos rejects and a dusting of chili powder after a malfunctioning machine had churned a batch of the nibbles out without their signature cheese coating. Recalling that Roger Enrico, then CEO of Frito-Lay (and later PepsiCo) had invited employees to “take ownership of the company,” he called the top boss to pitch the product. Enrico gave Montanez two weeks to prepare a formal presentation.

Today, the company sells Montanez’s spicy invention, plus crunchy and reduced-fat versions and a handful of similarly spicy snacks inspired by the man who used to mop the company’s floors. Montanez wrote in his memoir: “Don’t take your position for granted, regardless of what that position may be. CEO or janitor, act like you own the company.”

Everyone is on the sales team

Montanez, who dropped out of school by the fourth grade, never had any formal sales training; most of us don’t. But he understood a core principle that the most successful sales professionals live and die by: When you have something to sell, look for opportunities to sell it—and take them when they appear.

He’s proof that even a janitorial job is a sales job. He’s proof, in fact, that every job is a sales job.

Employees who don’t believe that are, in fact, leaving money on the table that could be bolstering a company’s bottom line and their own wallets. Janitors, receptionists, lawyers, accountants, computer techs—all employees— have multiple opportunities to sell for their companies every day. Every time any one of them works with a client and doesn’t ask if the customer needs anything else, that’s a missed sale. Every time any one of them solves a problem for a grateful consumer and doesn’t ask that person to refer the business to friends, family and colleagues, that’s a missed sale.

Most employees—and most of their managers—don’t recognize those as opportunities to sell because they’re not trained to look for them. Their job descriptions don’t require them to sell. Their business cards don’t mention “sales.”

Do what’s natural (or add chili powder if it’s not)

But everyone can, should—and in reality, does—sell all the time. You don’t have to invent something to sell, though. Long before Montanez sprinkled spices on those naked Cheetos, he was selling himself as the best janitor. He was selling the company as a business that hires people who take pride in their jobs and feel motivated to work hard for their employer.

Even though he worked as a janitor, he was selling.

Non-sales professionals can make unofficial sales by learning a simple, five-step process that Montanez seems to have known intuitively:

First, make a plan. Montanez experimented with spices and fed his prototypes to his family before unveiling them to Frito-Lay executives. He even designed a colorful bag that would become the model for the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos packages.

Second, look for opportunities. Once you realize that you have something to sell—and that it’s OK to sell—you’ll spot opportunities all around you. You can ask for referrals, for another order, for a chance to show someone how a product can solve a problem. You can simply ask each customer to come back and visit the company again. Montanez believed Enrico’s speech about owning the company was an invitation for even a janitor to feel that ownership. He took that as permission to call the CEO to pitch his discovery.

Next, establish trust. Montanez’s positive attitude in his janitorial job most likely won him friends and admirers within the company. When it was time to call the CEO—a stranger to Montanez—nobody shot him down because he was “just” a janitor. He was a loyal, grateful employee who gave 100 percent to his low-paying job every day.

Fourth, ask for what you want. This is the hardest part of sales. But Montanez is proof that taking the risk—risking a “no” or a brush-off—can pay off. If you don’t ask, after all, the answer is definitely “no.” If you do ask, at least you’ve got a shot.

And finally, follow-up. Montanez followed his Flamin’ Hot idea with ideas for more products, and the company rewarded his ingenuity with an unimaginable promotion. As PepsiCo North America’s vice president of multicultural sales and community activation, Montanez is the company’s most-recognizable face of diversity.

Making a sale when you see an opportunity—even if your job has nothing to do with formal sales—is, or should be—a no-brainer. It should be as automatic for every employee as it was for Montanez when he realized that even a janitor has something to sell.

Dr. Cindy McGovern is a Columnist at Grit Daily. Known as the “First Lady of Sales,” she speaks and consults internationally on sales, interpersonal communication and leadership. She is the author of Every Job is a Sales Job: How to Use the Art of Selling to Win at Work. Dr. Cindy is the CEO of Orange Leaf Consulting, a sales management and consulting firm.

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