WRITTEN BY BONNIE PFISTER
Linda Kuga Pikulin '81 didn’t set out to win awards or recognition. She just wanted to support her family.
The Aliquippa native was a 19-year-old freshman when her father died. The oldest of four children, she scaled back her studies while working full time to support her mother and siblings. “My dad had worked three jobs to make ends meet,” she says. “The lesson I learned from him early on was you have to have a strong work ethic if you want to survive.”
Three decades later, Kuga Pikulin has gone far past mere survival. As president of Pepsi Bottling Group Co.’s operations in Canada, she oversees 4,500 employees and more than $1 billion in annual revenue. In recognition of her leadership, performance, and community service, the Toronto-based Women’s Executive Network recently named her one of the 100 most powerful women in Canada.
The recognition was no surprise to her colleagues. “Linda has established herself as one of the most talented and accomplished leaders in the beverage industry,” says Rob King, president of Pepsi Bottling Group North America. “Her vision, passion, and integrity have enabled her to significantly grow our Canada business over the past 10 years and made her someone who is widely respected and admired throughout our organization.”
Following a brief stint with Xerox after earning her B.S.B.A. from RMU, Kuga Pikulin took a Pepsi service rep job with the McKees Rocks office, shopping the fountain drink to delis, pizzerias and taverns across the region. She credits mentors at Pepsi who offered training and encouragement for her to take on increasingly challenging assignments in sales, marketing and operations in New Jersey and Texas before earning executive positions in Florida, Georgia, New York, and Ohio.
That moving up and around – 12 moves in 28 years – wasn’t always easy. The first time, in her mid-20s, was the hardest. “I’d always lived at home with my mom,” recalls Kuga Pikulin. “I packed all my things and drove to Asbury Park, New Jersey. I think I cried for a month
“It was extremely challenging,” she says, “but the priority for me was always to continue to take advantage of career opportunities, to make enough money so that my mother would never have to worry about money for the rest of her life.”
That mission has been accomplished, she said. In 1998, she was appointed to Pepsi’s top job in Canada, and has settled in suburban Toronto. Her husband of nine years, chiropractor Dr. John N. Pikulin, still lives in Harrisburg, so the couple maintain a long-distance marriage. Kuga Pikulin also insists on clearing time in her schedule for the local United Way, serving on the organization’s cabinet and helping it to increase its major donations. “It is a very personal priority,” Kuga Pikulin says. “Many of the people who need support are people like my mother and father, who had no idea how to access community dollars or services. They have families they’re raising, they have a strong work ethic, but it’s not always easy to find work.”
So does she feel like one of the most powerful women in Canada? “I feel like one of the most blessed women in Canada,” she says with a laugh. “I have been blessed in exceeding my expectations for myself, financially and in terms of personal growth.”
And she’s within driving distance of her childhood home, which she visits at least once a month. “My focus on my mother now has nothing to do with money and everything to do with time,” she says. “I can jump in the car, get to Aliquippa in five hours, and sleep in the bed I slept in growing up. Every moment with my mother is precious.”