‘Flamin’ Hot Cheetos’ idea takes janitor away from mopping floors and into the executive jet

Richard Montañez’s product and his passion could wear the same label: Flamin’ Hot.

His is the kind of story America loves. A Mexican janitor in the Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., tinkers on his own time with a spicy recipe to coat the plant’s Cheetos. His family and friends like it.

He calls up the CEO. This is 1976. Amazingly, the CEO listens to him, thanks to a secretary who lets the call go through. The CEO invites a demonstration.

Montañez and his wife race to the public library to check out a book on marketing. He packages his red-tinged Cheetos in sample bags and buys a $3 tie, his first ever. A neighbor knots it for him. He presents his product to a management team.

Fast forward to Tuesday, when Montañez tells a packed house in a Westin Kansas City at Crown Center ballroom how his “Ph.D.” — poor, hungry and determined — vaulted him to the position of executive vice president, multicultural sales and community activation, for PepsiCo North America.

Call it courage. Call it lucky timing. Call it extraordinary. Montañez, who didn’t go to high school or college, created a product to capitalize on the fast-growing Latino population in the United States. In some stores, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are the top-selling snack, he said.

The corporate power structure that could have ignored him or co-opted his idea instead saw his potential, mentored and promoted him. He has now met U.S. presidents and spoken at the United Nations, and he serves on several boards. And he teaches leadership to MBA students at a California university.

Montañez was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s annual Power of Diversity event. This year, three Kansas City-based enterprises, Ecco Select, Swope Community Enterprises and Sprint Corp., were honored as “champions of diversity.”

That’s another apt label for Montañez, who subsequently has helped influence Hispanic products and promotions for KFC and Taco Bell.

“If you’re leading a company and you don’t have diversity, you don’t have inclusion. I don’t know how you’re going to survive,” Montañez told about 300 people at the breakfast. “I don’t know how you got this far.”

Part scold, part comic, part motivator, Montañez told about his improbable rise from mopping floors to corporate jets.

“My disqualifications are the very things that qualified me,” he said, particularly urging young minorities to be courageous and confident.

“Your own people will hold you back,” he warned them. “Break ranks. That’s diversity and inclusion. Don’t just hang out with your own.”

Back in elementary school, Montañez recalls being embarrassed when he pulled a burrito out of his lunchbox while the white kids were eating bologna sandwiches. He asked his mom to pack a bologna sandwich for him too.

But his mom said no, this is who you are. And she made him a second burrito to share with a bologna eater. By the end of the week, Montañez said, he was selling burritos to classmates for 25 cents apiece.

“Maybe I wasn’t created to fit in. Maybe I was created to stand out,” Montañez said unabashedly. “My greatness is courage. I’m willing to take a chance.”

His prime message was that “there’s no such thing as ‘just a janitor’” if you “act like an owner.”

Diversity and inclusion programs can open doors, he said, but “if you have confidence, you can walk into any room. … Your job is to prepare yourself to walk through the doors.”