WASHINGTON – Carlos M. Gutierrez (search) rose to the top of one of America's biggest corporations after leaving Cuba in 1960 as a political refugee. He began working at cereal giant Kellogg Co. selling Frosted Flakes out of a van in Mexico City.
President Bush, who nominated Gutierrez on Monday to be his secretary of commerce, hailed the chief executive of the world's largest cereal maker as someone who "understands the world of business from the first rung on the ladder to the very top."
In a brief White House ceremony, Gutierrez told Bush that he had been privileged to live the American dream since leaving Cuba with his parents and a brother as political refugees in 1960, one year after Fidel Castro (search) came to power.
Gutierrez, who will become the administration's point man in seeking to revive the country's beleaguered manufacturing sector, said he had no doubt that America would remain the best country in the world to set up a business.
"We have the best people. We have the training. We have the workers. We have the culture," he said. "I believe the 21st century is really and truly the American century."
If he wins Senate confirmation, as expected, Gutierrez will face formidable challenges at Commerce, including dealing with the loss of 2.7 million manufacturing jobs over the past four years and a trade deficit that has soared to record levels.
Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who now heads the National Association of Manufacturers (search), called Gutierrez a perfect choice for the job because of his experience running a company that sells globally and operates manufacturing plants in 19 countries.
"He is the most international person ever to be commerce secretary," Engler said in an interview. "He really knows what is happening in markets around the world."
Gutierrez, 51, joined Kellogg (search) in Mexico City in 1975 as a sales representative selling cereal from his van. He rose to become general manager of Kellogg's Mexican manufacturing operations in 1983.
He took over a facility that came in last in the company's internal rankings of its plants worldwide. Within two years, Gutierrez had transformed the operation into one of Kellogg's top-performing plants.
Gutierrez became Kellogg's chief executive in April 1999 after heading its Canadian operations and working in various management positions at the company's headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich.
Since taking over, he narrowed the company's primary focus to cereal and snacks, providing new life for such brands as Special K and winning admiration on Wall Street for reviving the fortunes of a flagging company. As part of that effort, Kellogg bought the cookie and cracker company Keebler Foods in 2001 for $3.9 billion.
Kellogg's net sales rose from $6.2 billion in 1999 to $8.8 billion last year, a 43 percent increase, helping to drive earnings per share up by 131 percent.
His revamping of Kellogg's operations included a decision to close the 98-year-old company's oldest corn flakes plant, saving the company millions of dollars in operating expenses annually but at the cost of 500 jobs in the Battle Creek area.
For his efforts, Gutierrez received $7.4 million in total compensation in 2003, including salary, bonus and incentive payments, according to a Kellogg proxy statement. He owns or has option rights to 2 million shares of company stock.