Target's temporary leader rose through finance ranks

John Mulligan, who became Target’s interim leader last week, has taken an increasingly visible role at the embattled company.

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John Mulligan

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When lawmakers summoned Target Corp. to Capitol Hill after the retailer’s stunning data breach, it was CFO John Mulligan the company dispatched for the grilling.

Mulligan served as the face of Target for this winter’s breach proceedings, striking an apologetic tone and vowing to improve the company’s data security. Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel, the man in charge, stayed away.

Now, with Steinhafel’s exit last week, Mulligan is at the helm of the nation’s No. 2 retailer. Company watchers call him a natural choice to help stabilize the Minneapolis-based company as it hunts for a permanent CEO.

Former Target executive Jerry Storch, head of Storch Advisors in Minneapolis, called Mulligan “smart and practical.”

“He has a calm, reassuring style,” Storch said.

Brian Yarbrough, consumer analyst at Edward Jones & Co., said Mulligan “knows the business.”

Installing Mulligan, 48, as interim CEO should give Wall Street some measure of calm as the Minneapolis-based retailer casts a wide net for a CEO who will face a substantial repair list, not the least of which is fixing huge losses on its expansion in Canada.

A numbers guy who rose through Target’s finance ranks, Mulligan is accustomed to fielding tough questions from investors and industry analysts. And he’s as easy in person as Steinhafel can be awkward in public speaking, Target watchers say.

Mulligan lives in Shoreview, and spent much of his childhood in Eau Claire, Wis., graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1988.

Longtime friend Anthony Bourget, a patent and trademark lawyer in Eau Claire, Wis., called Mulligan “a genuine leader type of guy.” Bourget said Mulligan impressed his teachers at Regis Catholic Schools as inquisitive, humble and intelligent. The old Eau Claire crowd remains fairly tight, he said.

Mulligan worked as a senior design engineer at Kleenex maker Kimberly-Clark Corp. and senior project engineer at Waldorf Corp. in St. Paul before earning an MBA from the University of Minnesota in 1996.

That was the year Mulligan joined Target as a financial analyst, eventually working his way up to director of Target.com finance in 2003. He held a variety of other posts before being picked to replace retiring CFO Doug Scovanner in April 2012.

Capitol Hill appearances

Though he is a familiar face for Wall Street analysts who track the cheap-chic retailer, Mulligan was relatively unknown to the general public before heading to Washington in February to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

There, a contrite ­Mulligan described how the Justice Department alerted Target on Dec. 12 to suspicious activity involving payment cards used at its stores. He talked about how the company removed the malware and opted for broad public disclosure via the media, rather than e-mailing or phoning customers to notify them of the breach. He defended the company’s efforts to secure its networks.

“Over the past several years, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in several areas — in technology to prevent data loss,” Mulligan testified. “This includes segmentation, malware detection, intruder detection and prevention, data-loss prevention tools, multiple layers of firewalls.”

Mulligan hit the apology note hard.

“He was a good witness for the company, and I appreciated his candor,” said Sen. Al Franken, a member of the committee. “You could tell he felt genuinely sorry for what had happened. It was also clear that he took the responsibility to protect Target’s customers’ data very seriously.”

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