Armed with a handful of preentation slides, an overhead projector and a large supply of test samples, twenty-six-year-old Richard Montanez stood anxiously before the CEO, CMO and a squadron of Frito-Lay executives that auspicious day in the late 1980’s. The senior leaders had flown in from corporate headquarters to hear about their colleague’s new product idea. Montanez, a long-tenured employee stationed at one of Frito-Lay’s Southern California manufacturing plants, had reached out to then-CEO Roger Enrico a couple of weeks earlier to make a preliminary pitch. As Montanez tells it, his phone call was intercepted by Enrico’s executive assistant, and their dialogue went something like this:
“Mr. Enrico’s office. Who is calling?”
“What division are you with?”
“You’re the VP overseeing California?”
“No, I work at the Rancho Cucamonga plant.”
“Oh, so you’re the VP of operations?”
“No, I work inside the plant.”
“You’re the plant manager?”
“No. I’m the janitor.”
The assistant paused for what seemed like an eternity. “One moment.”
That’s right. Richard Montanez was not an established leader in the company, nor at the time was he considered a leader of any kind at Frito-Lay. He swept floors and cleaned toilets for a living. Nevertheless, as the world would soon discover, Montanez was not just any janitor. He believed he was the best janitor in the world, and he also believed his novel idea was destined for greatness. All he needed was a chance to prove it.
Montanez got his chance that morning at the Rancho Cucamonga plant, and as he would note years later, “it only takes a single revelation to become a revolution.” Needless to say, his sales pitch wound up being a resounding success, and it would serve as a precursor to Montanez’s meteoric rise within Frito-Lay, parent company Pepsi-Co., and with everyone who loves a great underdog story. Today Richard Montanez is a renowned author, speaker and philanthropist. He has been recognized byNewsweek and Fortune as one of the most influential Hispanic leaders in America. And soon, a Hollywood movie outlining Montanez’s life, appropriately called “Flamin’ Hot,” will reportedly be hitting a big screen near you!
So what was Montanez’s groundbreaking concept? For those of you with a special affinity for spicy foods, you will no doubt be familiar with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The brand would become a pop culture phenomenon for Frito-Lay, and it would usher in a wildly popular new cottage industry of fiery, eye-watering snacks. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos remains, to this day, among the most popular and profitable products in Frito-Lay history. According to sales data from goPuff, an app-based delivery service that offers more than 2,500 products from 150 facilities located across the country, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is America’s favorite snack brand for 2019, a ranking it has held now for three straight years. Did I mention the snack has reached pop-culture phenomenon? In 2017, a single Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, inadvertently shaped like Harambe the Gorilla, sold for almost $100,000 to the highest bidder on eBay!
To better understand how a nondescript janitor could possibly reach such amazing success, let us go back to the beginning of the story. Montanez, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up with his parents, grandfather and 11 siblings in Guasti, California, a small farming town about 40 miles outside of Los Angeles. The family lived together in a tiny one-room shack, making ends meet early on as grape pickers at a nearby fruit orchard. Montanez had practically no formal education as a child, quitting school after the 4th grade to help support his family. He would go on to work a variety of menial jobs during his youth, including slaughtering chickens at a poultry factory and washing cars. Despite a strongly developed work ethic, Montanez could barely read or write, a fact that would normally not bode well for future career prospects.
In 1976, at the age of 18, Montanez heard about a job opening at the nearby Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga. Knowing this could be a long-awaited ticket out of poverty, Montanez rushed to pick up a job application, and enlisted the help of his wife to fill it out. Next came an interview with the hiring manager, who, upon reviewing the application and complimenting his handwriting skills, offered Montanez a janitorial position on the spot.
His family was ecstatic to learn of Montanez’s new “corporate” job, and something his father and grandfather said at the time would remain with him forever. “When you mop the floor, always make sure it shines. Make it shine so brightly that everyone knows a Montanez did it.”
Montanez would certainly make his presence known over the coming years, fashioning himself into a loyal and respected team member with an eye for the bigger picture. He had a particular interest in learning more about the retail and marketing side of Frito-Lay and began spending his off days shadowing a teammate in sales. One day Montanez tagged along to restock inventory at a convenience store in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. It was at that time the revelation hit him. He observed that all of the company’s products sitting on the shelf were plain and bland. They lacked kick. But right next to the Frito-Lay rack was a shelf brimming with all kinds of Mexican spices. “Nobody had given any thought to the Latino market,” recalls Montanez. “But everywhere I looked, I saw it ready to explode.”
Back at the plant several days later, in a strange twist of fate, one of the machines responsible for coating the Cheetos with cheese powder happened to malfunction, leaving a batch of undusted snacks on the conveyor belt. Instead of throwing them away as part of his regular custodial duties, Montanez took them home. He and his wife began experimenting with a variety of spicy recipes, inspired by a neighborhood street vendor who prepared Mexican corn on the cob, called elotes. After conducting numerous taste tests with friends and co-workers, the couple believed they were definitely onto something big.
It was around this time that Montanez decided to call the CEO, Roger Enrico. “I was naive,” Montanez would later say. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to call the CEO… I didn’t know the rules.” He was simply doing what seemed natural to him.
Following Montanez’s initial interaction with the executive assistant, Enrico picked up the phone to see why a company janitor was calling. Montanez thanked the CEO for hearing him out, and for encouraging all employees via a prior video communication to “act like owners.” He commenced to provide a synopsis of his recent field research indicating a need in the market for spicy snack alternatives. Montanez also shared with Enrico that he had concocted the perfect solution in his own kitchen. At the end of the call, Enrico praised Montanez for his resourcefulness, and asked him to come prepared with a formal presentation when he and his team visited the plant in two weeks.
Montanez was very excited, though equally terrified, at this recent turn of events. He again enlisted the help of his wife. Together, they visited the local library and checked out a book on developing market plans. They copied the first five paragraphs from the book, and converted them onto transparency slides. At home the night before the presentation, the couple whipped up their spicy recipe and separated the batch into individual plastic baggies, with each bag including a hand-written logo and design.
Approximately 100 senior leaders were present for the pitch that day. As Montanez tells it, the presentation was going extremely well, when one of the executives stopped him for a question. “Your samples taste great, but I do have a question. What kind of market share do you think we’re talking about with this product?” Market share? Montanez had no idea what “market share” even meant. At that point, he confesses that he nearly ran out the door out of fear, because, after all, he was only a janitor. But there was something inside of him that was greater than his fear. “I was hungry. As ridiculous as I looked. As foolish as I felt. My hunger was greater. I was hungry to become more than I currently was. I was hungry to stretch myself.”
He didn’t know the answer to “How much market share?,” but in that moment he reflected back to the snack racks (called gondolas) that Frito-Lay and competitor products were placed on in stores at that time. It suddenly dawned on Montanez how to respond. He stretched out his arms as far as he could to represent the width of the store racks, and excitedly exclaimed, “This much market share!”
Montanez said he could hear numerous whispers in the room just after making his bold proclamation. After what seemed like an eternity, the CEO stood up with his arms symbolically spread wide and declared, “Ladies and gentlemen, do you realize we have the opportunity to go after this much market share?” Within six months of the meeting, the product would officially launch in Southern California test markets with very limited fanfare, and in 1992 Flamin’ Hot Cheetos would be released in markets everywhere.
The rest, as they say, is history. But the Richard Montanez account is so much more than what it appears on the surface. There are countless work and life lessons to be learned here, particularly as we evaluate the importance of human beliefs on external outcomes. Montanez’s story is one of amazing human accomplishment, but sadly, for many of us, it is also an indictment on us maximizing our God-given potential. One reason the story is so compelling is that it is such an anomaly. Montanez is someone that succeeded despite all the odds; despite a world that would tell him he was not worthy of being more than a janitor; that it was not appropriate for someone so far down on the totem pole to contact the CEO directly, much less stand before a group of high-powered executives. How is such a “rags to riches” story even possible?
Here is my theory: Richard Montanez believed it was possible. Or at the very least, he did not believe it was impossible. Ironically, his early naïveté surrounding how business is supposed to work served Montanez exceedingly well. Otherwise, he would not have taken the bold actions that he did.
I didn’t know it was inappropriate to call the CEO directly.
I didn’t know that because I didn’t even make it to middle school there was no hope for me.
I didn’t know there was anything wrong with just being a janitor.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
And because Montanez didn’t know about the invisible cap on his potential, he was unleashed to achieve what was planted in his heart to do.
What limiting beliefs are holding you back from becoming a better version of yourself? Take steps today to overcome them and press forward!