How does one climb from intern to the first female CEO of one of the biggest pet-care companies in the world? For Nina Leigh Krueger, MBA ’94, it took creativity, a lot of hard work and lightweight kitty litter.
In Olin Business School’s “On Principle” podcast, Krueger says she never set out to become CEO of Nestlé Purina PetCare for the Americas. “[My ambition] was really to conquer the job I had been hired to do, and to be a brand manager.”
In 1993, Krueger was working on an MBA at WashU when Ralston Purina (now Nestlé Purina) offered her a brand management internship — and she never left. “Purina’s values, culture and people have felt like home to me since my early days as an intern,” Krueger says.
Krueger’s experience studying at WashU was foundational to her career. “Olin taught me how to ask smart questions,” she says. “I discovered that leadership is not just knowing the answers. Often it is about knowing the right questions to ask of your subject-matter experts.”
These lessons carried Krueger through her first years working in marketing at Purina, but they proved especially salient when she was unexpectedly thrust into the company’s struggling cat-litter division.
This was not the career shift she was looking for. “I felt like, in some ways, I was being put into a penalty box,” she says. “In our careers, we all feel that we should keep moving up and up and up; but this was a lateral roll.”
At the time, the cat-litter division was in dire straits. “The business was in a really challenging position and was somewhat separate from the rest of Purina. The message that I got was essentially: ‘Revive it, get a stronger pulse, or we may have to exit the business.’”
Krueger entered the department in a marketing role, but her responsibilities quickly expanded. “I had to develop a team and build trust,” she says. “I had to use my marketing skills to demonstrate to them that I knew what I was doing, but I also needed to understand their expertise so that we could build on this together.”
She also decided to light a fire under the team with the ambitious goal to become a billion-dollar division by 2020. “If you don’t push the boundaries and break paradigms and think differently,” she told them, “then we’re not going to get to where we need to be.”
Undertaking a “segmentation study” on consumer impulse, the division found a sore spot. “What we learned was that consumers didn’t like lugging litters. They really wanted a lightweight litter.” After a series of challenges and successes, the newly developed product was successfully launched. The litter division has since achieved her billion-dollar goal.
Krueger went on to other prominent roles at Purina, including leading the merger of the Purina and Nestlé marketing departments. She was appointed chief marketing officer in 2015 and became the company’s first female president in 2016.
In 2021, Krueger became the CEO of Nestlé -Purina. “It was an incredible and humbling year,” she says. “I’ve been reminded at every turn what a wonderful team we have.”
From her first days as an intern, Krueger has lived by a mantra: Listen. Learn. Lead. “It is crucial that leaders have a vision,” she says, “but it’s equally crucial that they be open to input from their teams. Business success is about getting results, not credit.”