Brenda Barnes, 63, ex-Sara Lee CEO, dies: ‘Just the perfect mom’

SHARE Brenda Barnes, 63, ex-Sara Lee CEO, dies: ‘Just the perfect mom’

Brenda Barnes, retired CEO of Sara Lee, with her son Jeff Barnes at “Skyrise Chicago,” a fundraiser at Chicago’s Willis Tower in 2010. Over 2,500 stair climbers ascended 103 floors or 2,109 steps to reach the summit to raise money for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. File Photo by Al Podgorski /Chicago Sun-Times

Brenda Barnes, the former CEO of Sara Lee, died Tuesday afternoon, family members said.

She was 63.

Ms. Barnes, who lived in west suburban Naperville, suffered her second stroke Sunday, according to her family.

She served as CEO of the former baked goods company Sara Lee, which was headquartered in Downers Grove, from 2005 until 2010, when she had her first stroke.

Ms. Barnes garnered headlines in 1997 when she left her job as CEO of PepsiCo to stay home and raise her three children. She went back to work for Sara Lee and was one of three women leading businesses listed among Chicago’s Top 50 largest publicly traded companies when she suffered her initial stroke.

After she was hired, she said: “”I view it as a privilege to have the opportunity to lead Sara Lee.”

In 2009, Fortune Magazine declared her one of the 10 most powerful women in the country.

Brenda Barnes, former chief executive of Sara Lee Corporation. File Photo.

Brenda Barnes, former chief executive of Sara Lee Corporation. File Photo.

Shortly after assuming the helm of Sara Lee, she spun off the company’s $4.5 billion apparel brands, including Hanes and Playtex, about 40 percent of the company’s total assets. The company eventually split into two in 2012.

Even with her demanding work life, Brenda Barnes was “the best mother you could ever imagine,” her daughter, Erin Barnes, said Tuesday night.

Saying that picking out a favorite memory of her mother was “a tall order,” Erin Barnes added that: “She really was just the perfect mom [and was] there for us for everything.”

With six sisters of her own, the concept of a strong family was very important to Ms. Barnes and was “woven” into her children’s lives, too.

“Family is what she lived for,” her daughter said.

After her first stroke, Ms. Barnes inspired others with her work ethic.

“Anyone would be amazed how hard she worked to learn how to live her life,” Erin Barnes said. “She loved that her family was around during that time.”

In November 2010, six months after her stroke, Brenda Barnes and 35 other friends and family members climbed the 2,109 steps of the Willis Tower, raising $13,000 for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

After her stroke, Ms. Barnes was a patient at the institute for five weeks. Erin Barnes said her mother recently joined the board of directors, which meant a lot to her because “they helped all of us with her recovery.”

Erin Barnes added that her mother was working with the institute to open a new hospital.

As her recovery progressed, Brenda Barnes looked to help more people, her daughter said, guiding many along the way.

“She stayed very busy,” her daughter said. “That’s her nature.”

Ms. Barnes earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Augustana College in Rock Island, where she remained an active alumnus, her daughter said. She received her master’s in business administration from Loyola University. She worked for Wilson Sporting Goods and Frito-Lay before joining PepsiCo in 1975.

“She was a mentor to so many people,” Erin Barnes said.

Brenda Barnes is survived by her three children, Erin, Jeff and Brian. Services are pending.

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