In more than 30 years in business, I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with some pretty incredible people. But without question, one of my most memorable meetings was with Bruce Dayton, a member of Target’s own founding family. I was just a few weeks into my new job as Target’s CEO when Bruce’s grandson Eric put together a small gathering at his home to introduce my wife, Martha, and me to members of Minnesota’s business and nonprofit community.

The gesture alone was generous. Many people arrived with ideas or advice, but the fewest and yet most profound words came from Bruce. Seated next to the fireplace, we talked about his hopes for the company that he and his brothers established more than 50 years ago. His record of achievement is remarkable: building the first indoor shopping mall, pioneering the concept of discount retail, founding a company that would become one of the largest private-sector employers in the world. But as much as I was struck by his accomplishments, it was his legacy of generosity that stuck with me most.

Bruce, who died on Friday at age 97, was 96 the night we met. He took the time to visit with me because he wanted me to succeed — he wanted Target to succeed — but not for the reasons you might think. His focus wasn’t on protecting his legacy, but rather, about furthering the commitment to community he began so many years ago. That notion is one of the Dayton family’s core philosophies: Companies’ fortunes are intrinsically linked to the health and vitality of the communities in which they operate. And Bruce understood this long before almost anyone else.

Today, corporate social responsibility is a priority of nearly every company in America. But decades ago, when Bruce was opening Target’s first stores, he was one of the lone voices espousing this view. And he backed his words with bold actions — ensuring that Target gave 5 percent of its profits back to the community. That’s a commitment we are proud to uphold each day.

The night we met, Bruce brought me a set of books (two he’d authored himself) about the history of Target and the Dayton family. His hope was that by sharing the past, these books would help guide the future. Their pages hold the values and the vision he helped set forth decades ago. I keep these books on my desk, not as cherished mementos, but as guidebooks that help me do my small part in making sure Bruce’s legacy of generosity endures for generations to come.

 

Brian Cornell is chairman and CEO of Target Corp.