Joly is jumping head-first into fight for Best Buy's future

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2012 - 9:26 PM

Supporters of ex-Carlson CEO says he's up to the task, but others see hurdles.

Hubert Joly
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Hubert Joly

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Cue the klieg lights.

Best Buy CEO-in-waiting Hubert Joly is about to take center stage in the most challenging performance of his professional life.

"Sense of urgency is a good word for my management style," the 53-year-old French-born executive told the Star Tribune more than four years ago when he took control of then-struggling Carlson.

He'll have scads of urgency at Best Buy.

In 2008-09, Joly was staring down a global recession that hit the travel and hotel industries -- key Carlson businesses -- especially hard. Now he's taking over a retail giant that's staggering to regain its balance while facing a skeptical Wall Street and a combative former chairman.

At Carlson, Joly answered to several dozen members of the Carlson family. At publicly held Best Buy, Joly's performance will be analyzed by dozens of stock analysts and hundreds of anxious investors whose shares are trading near five-year lows.

Joly assumes the job in early September. People who know him says he's up to the task.

"He gets things done," said Maureen Bausch, executive vice president for business development at the Mall of America. She serves with Joly on a presidential panel studying U.S. tourism policies and opportunities. "When you are in a group you just know who the active leaders are. He is well liked and well respected. He takes the ball and runs with it."

A polished presence

While ousted Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn was an open-necked-shirt kind of guy, Joly is a cuff-links-and-suit kind of guy.

At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Joly always presents a polished presence. His closely cropped gray hair, wire-rim glasses and French accent underscore his cosmopolitan upbringing.

Born and raised in France, Joly began his career with business consultant McKinsey & Co., moved to the technology sector with Electronic Data Systems and worked for the media firm Vivendi Universal before joining Carlson Wagonlit Travel as CEO in 2003.

He was picked by Marilyn Carlson Nelson as her successor -- and the first non-family CEO -- in 2008.

Joly observers believe running a big-box retailer is, in some ways, no different than running a travel and hospitality conglomerate.

"If you manage a big, global business, then you are a manager of people and a manager of resources and you know how to ask the right questions," said Kirby Payne, a consultant with HVS Hotel Management.

But others are less certain that Joly has the touch to right Best Buy.

"We don't know much about him and that's the problem," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst for NBG Productions. "He's a rogue agent that reminds me of MacGyver. He's in and then out and off to another project."

Sozzi said while Best Buy's immediate fixes are apparent, a long-term strategy is vital for the company's survival.

"He might look good in years one and two but what does he do in year three?" Sozzi asked. "Best Buy not only has structural turmoil but news flow turmoil as well. I think he has many sleepless nights in front of him."

Carlson turnaround

Under Joly, Carlson trimmed under-performing hotels out of its system, turned T.G.I. Friday's from a family restaurant back to its roots as a younger, hipper bar with good food and saw revenues recover at Carlson Wagonlit Travel as the economy strengthened.

Internally, Joly cut costs and bodies at the Minnetonka headquarters and decentralized Carlson's separate business units to give them more autonomy. He stopped the bleeding in the Carlson Marketing Group and eventually sold it to a Canadian firm.

At Best Buy, Joly will oversee a business with arguably too many stores and not enough paying customers. He'll have to right-size the retail chain and bring service levels up to a point where customers come back to buy, not just to browse.

"People possess skills to be great leaders and that transfers from industry to industry," said Bausch.

Payne also noted that Joly surrounds himself with good executives. Carlson's new CEO, Trudy Rautio, is an example. She spent the last four years at Joly's side.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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Hubert Joly