For 28 years, Woman Has Been the Cream in Kahlua’s Coffee : Management: Maria del Pilar Gutierrez has piloted her company to the top of a male industry in a macho country.


When Kahlua opened a plant in the northern Mexico town of Ramos Arizpe last spring, it did so with a party befitting a company that makes the best-selling liqueur in the United States.

A mariachi band serenaded guests as they walked from an outdoor Roman Catholic Mass to a distillery transformed into a banquet hall for the day. There, they ate from tables adorned with brightly striped serapes and were entertained by folk dancers.

Presiding over it all was the boss: Maria del Pilar Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was not only the mistress of ceremonies. She designed the invitations and the decorations, chose the music and helped prepare the meal.

Such involvement and attention to detail have marked her 28 years as general manager of Kahlua S.A., which makes the coffee-flavored liqueur with the yellow label and short-necked bottle. Since taking charge of operations here while still in her 20s, she has survived three ownerships while assuring the consistent quality that has made Kahlua an enduring brand on liquor store shelves.


“She has succeeded in an environment that is very male-dominated. Not only is Mexico that way, but also the liquor industry,” said Roy Stevens, president of Kahlua Group. The group is the Los Angeles-based subsidiary of London-based Allied Lyon PLC that is in charge of marketing the liqueur internationally.

Gutierrez attributes her success to a willingness to transmit the ideas of a succession of American, Canadian and British corporate bosses to the 100 Mexican workers who make Kahlua.

“You have to adapt,” she said during an interview in her office--filled with Kahlua bottles, dolls, a certificate commemorating a papal blessing and other mementos.

“Some corporations are more concerned about sales, others with production,” she said. “Some want financial statements every month, some every week.

“I don’t especially like to give interviews, but it’s good for the company, so here we are. You have to do what is required, remembering that the bottom line is always profits, profits, profits.”

Gutierrez is the youngest child of a San Francisco woman who married a Spaniard, came to Mexico on her honeymoon and stayed. Widowed a few weeks before Maria was born, she raised three children on a farm near Hermosillo, about 170 miles from the Arizona border.

“Sometimes we had to walk to school with holes in our shoes,” Gutierrez recalled. She and her mother later moved to Mexico City so she could study accounting at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which charges no tuition.

“People said, ‘Don’t bother to educate her; she will just get married,’ ” Gutierrez said. “Well, I never married.”

A part-time job at the Mexico City office of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm led her to Kahlua, which was then a seven-employee start-up firm. She began working full time for the liqueur maker in 1960, while she was still in school.

“There were times when I did not sleep for three days, when I had exams and still had to work,” she said. Nevertheless, she was the first woman to graduate from UNAM’s accounting program with the equivalent of straight A’s.

A few weeks after Kahlua hired her, the company exported its first 60 cases of liqueur for test marketing. Last year, the company exported 2.5 million cases, 1.7 million of them to the United States.

No other liqueur had U.S. sales that large, according to Jobson’s Liquor Handbook, an industry publication. “That’s up slightly (from 1988) in a year when the entire category was down,” said Nicolas Furlotte, editor of Jobson’s. Two years after Gutierrez walked into the Kahlua plant as an outside auditor for Price Waterhouse, she was running the company. “I did everything from work on the bottling line to heat the glue for the labels,” she said.

Today, she heads Kahlua’s two factories--the one here and the new one in Ramos Arizpe, 200 miles south of Laredo, Tex. She reports to Stevens and other managers in Los Angeles.

“When I came into the business in 1958, Kahlua was still in its infancy,” said Max Kerstein, publisher of Beverage Bulletin, a Los Angeles-based liquor industry publication. “It has maintained its identity for over 30 years.”

Much of that identity can be credited to Gutierrez. She has been Kahlua’s constant as Southern California developer Jules Bernam sold the company to Hiram Walker & Sons in the mid-1960s and as Hiram Walker was bought by Allied Lyon, a $7.5-billion-a-year conglomerate, in 1986.

Through the changes, Gutierrez shipped ever-increasing quantities of Kahlua. That meant assuring reliable supplies of coffee, sugar, vanilla and alcohol in a country where shortages are nearly as frequent as transportation snags.

It also required meeting delivery schedules--getting the liqueur across the border on time, a task that baffles many executives here. “Maria has excellent contacts,” Stevens said. Those contacts, he added, are what keeps Kahlua flowing to the United States.

She also assures that every bottle of Kahlua tastes the same, even though the ingredients may vary in sweetness and other qualities.

She minimizes the differences with strong links to suppliers. For example, all the coffee comes from the same region in the Gulf of Mexico coastal state of Veracruz.

Kahlua’s laboratory checks a sample from each batch of the liqueur. If it passes those tests, a shot glass is filled and placed on Gutierrez’s desk.

The final test is whether the liqueur tastes right to her.

Gutierrez runs Kahlua with a mixture of textbook administrative techniques and old-fashioned paternalism.

For Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, each Kahlua worker receives a gift basket containing a bottle of Kahlua and a poem selected by Gutierrez. The end of the fiscal year, a visit by U.S. executives or just about any other occasion calls for a company party in a lunch room decorated--by Gutierrez, naturally--like the outdoor kitchen of a ranch, with hay carts and copper utensils.

Also, in emergencies, workers can count on pay advances and easy repayment terms.

But paternalism ends where performance begins. Every Kahlua employee from manager to entry-level factory worker has clear objectives and goals.

Gutierrez said she works hard with employees to help them meet their goals--but the goals must be met.

“Firing someone is the most difficult decision for a manager to make,” she said. “However, sometimes it must be done. The company is the source of jobs for all the workers and must be protected.”

Her methods seem to work. Although Kahlua is located in a highly unionized area, the company has no union and has never suffered a strike--which, in Mexico, is the usual prelude to an organizing drive.

Gutierrez sets an example of dedication, arriving at the office at 6:30 a.m. and often staying until 8 p.m.

Despite the long hours, Gutierrez has had an active social and family life.

She and her mother raised her three nephews, and her home in a fashionable Mexico City suburb was the setting for elaborate parties for each family member’s birthday.

Lillian Schenker, a long-time friend, said the parties stopped abruptly two years ago, when Gutierrez’s youngest nephew was killed in an automobile accident and her mother died shortly afterward.

“She still hasn’t gotten over it,” Schenker said. “It’s been a long time since I have seen her really happy.”

After the deaths, Gutierrez dedicated her spare time to three charities. At an orphanage run by nuns, she concentrates on helping girls develop the skills they will need for business careers.

“I tell them to be prepared to prove themselves,” she said. “Women are not automatically accepted, but they will be once they show they are capable.”