Can interim Chairwoman Roxanne Austin help turn the tide at Target?

  • Article by: KAVITA KUMAR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2014 - 7:35 AM

In previous jobs, "Hurricane Roxanne" was known for making sweeping changes.

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Roxanne Austin will lead the Target board as it hunts for a new CEO.

Photo: Michael Clancy, Bloomberg News

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Target Corp. has been mired in quite a storm since last year, so it’s perhaps fitting that one of the people leading the company through it was once nicknamed “Hurricane Roxanne.”

Roxanne Austin, who was tapped earlier this month to serve as the retailer’s interim board chairwoman, was bestowed with the moniker more than a decade ago by employees at DirecTV during her two-year reign as president. It was a nod to the sweeping changes she put into place to help turn around the then-slumping satellite television provider.

Now Austin has a hands-on role advising John Mulligan, Target’s interim CEO, during the transition period following the departure of Gregg Steinhafel, the former chairman and CEO.

She will lead the board as it hunts for a new CEO with the assistance of search firm Korn Ferry. And she will help chart the company’s course as Target continues to grapple with the fallout from the data breach, a floundering expansion into Canada and relentless competition from online rivals.

Those who know Austin say her hardworking, straightforward and insightful approach will serve her well in her new role.

“I think she takes a hard look and if change is needed, she has the courage to do it,” said Susan Stautberg, head of WomenCorporateDirectors. “She’s not someone who looks backward. She’s always looking forward and what’s on the horizon.”

Austin, 53, has served on Target’s board of directors for 12 years, so she’s well-versed in the ins and outs of the retailer. And she’s been a “vocal leader” as the company has dealt with the data breach, said Target spokeswoman Dustee Jenkins.

As part of her new role, Austin has committed to coming to Minneapolis every week from her home in California, the company said. She declined to be interviewed.

Since she left DirecTV in 2003, she’s been a more behind-the-scenes player, serving on five corporate boards where she has become a go-to person when it comes to financial and risk management oversight. She chairs three of those boards’ audit committees, including Target’s.

Austin is also president of Austin Investment Advisors, a private investment and consulting firm focused on new media and technology.

“Her outside expertise in the mobile and digital space will be incredibly helpful,” Jenkins said.

Daunting to-do list

The key for Austin will be to prioritize her goals, which should include evaluating Target’s retail strategies, reassuring customers and getting an executive team in place as soon as possible, said David Larcker, a Stanford University business professor who focuses on corporate governance.

“You have to have tremendous energy now because the pressure is immense,” he said. “She’s going to be working almost a full-time job.”

The Target board typically meets quarterly, but has been convening every month more recently since the massive data breach. An added challenge will be juggling the attention Target needs right now with the four other boards on which Austin serves, he said.

It is a bit unusual for a company to split the interim CEO and board chairperson role, Larcker noted. But it is a tactic used when there is some “sort of trauma in a big organization.”

“It’s one of these ideas that the job has gotten really big and maybe having two people split that job is a good idea,” he said.

Energizing DirecTV

An Arkansas native, Austin is a certified public accountant who started off her career at Deloitte & Touche, where she was a partner. She joined Hughes Electronics in 1993 and moved up over the years to become its chief financial officer.

Austin’s most visible role to date was when she became president and chief operating officer of one of Hughes’ divisions — DirecTV — in 2001. She took over when the company was distracted by talks about a possible sale.

But she was credited with acting quickly to boost the provider’s subscriber base by more than 2.6 million new customers. She also renegotiated contracts with distributors and manufacturers and reduced the workforce by 10 percent. She took a tough stance on piracy and successfully worked to reduce the monthly churn of customers who dropped the service after sampling it for a few months. During her tenure, the company’s cash flow improved, profits swung into the black and revenue increased 37 percent. Hence, “Hurricane Roxanne.”

“We had to change, and we had to change fast,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

She left the company a year later as News Corp. took control of DirecTV. Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman and senior analyst for the Carmel Group, said Austin stood out for being a woman in a prominent leadership position in a male-dominated company and industry.

“I would say her crowning achievement was that she left with the respect of pretty much everyone around her,” he said.

Move Networks

If there is one hiccup in Austin’s career, it was probably when she became president and CEO of Move Networks, an online television company, in 2009.

When she took the job, she said she was drawn to it because the company could be a “game changer” in the industry. But she left Move Networks after a year when the company was put up for sale. Its assets were eventually sold to EchoStar.

Austin was brought in too late to help save Move Networks as the behemoth Microsoft and other competitors were coming out with competing software, said Dan Rayburn, a streaming and online video analyst. And the industry later moved away from such proprietary streaming software anyway.

“By the time they brought Roxanne in to run the business — she might tell you she thought she could turn the company around — but she was basically being set up for failure,” he said.

Still, Rayburn said he was impressed by Austin’s grasp of the industry and of the challenges confronting the company. And Austin wasn’t full of hype as can sometimes be the case in that field, he said.

“She was real — she didn’t pull any punches.”

 

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113

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