Target’s new chief Brian Cornell is nothing if not determined.
In 1981, Cornell handed in his last college paper at UCLA, took his final exam and skipped out on the graduation ceremony to catch a plane to London in search of the woman he said had “absolutely stolen my heart.”
He is still married to that college sweetheart, Martha, who with their daughter and son traveled across Europe, Africa and North America while Cornell moved frequently as a rising retail executive.
“You look back at key decisions in life,” Cornell told a class of UCLA graduates in 2010, “and that was one of the early ones I got right.”
Cornell, 55, arrives at Target at a time when such determination and doggedness will be in high demand. The Minneapolis-based retailer has struggled to pull out of a slump that began during the Great Recession. A data breach discovered during the holiday season dealt a blow to its reputation, and the nation’s No. 2 discount chain has stumbled mightily in its foray into Canada.
Cornell is the first outsider hired to lead the company, and his hopscotching career contrasts sharply with Target’s previous execs, a trait that Target’s board believes will be essential to move the company forward.
Previous CEO Gregg Steinhafel was a Target lifer who had spent his entire career with the retailer before he left in May. Cornell comes to Target from PepsiCo Americas Foods and has had four jobs in the past 10 years. Each time he moved on, he moved up.
Target declined to make Cornell available for an interview until after Aug. 12, when he officially moves into his office at the company’s headquarters on Nicollet Avenue. In a statement accepting the post, Cornell said he was looking forward to creating the “Target of tomorrow,” which includes improving Target’s online presence.
Cornell already is well known to a number of Twin Cities business leaders, in part because he has been on the board of directors at Polaris since 2012. That board also includes chief executives at two other locally based companies: John Wiehoff of trucking and logistics firm C.H. Robinson and Gary Hendrickson of international paint manufacturer Valspar.
Polaris CEO Scott Wine said Cornell called him Tuesday to say he would be taking over at Target, and the news left Wine smiling from ear to ear.
“I like to see the good guys win,” Wine said. “He’s extremely well-liked and respected among the board members, and he’s earned the respect from my management team.”
Wine said Cornell brings a steady hand and measured approach to leadership.
“He doesn’t need to be the loudest one in the room,” Wine said, “but he often has the most important thing to say.”
Cornell grew up in New York City and has said he never really knew his father. Sports became a passion and an escape, and he hit the books hard. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden became a role model as Cornell worked his way through college with part-time jobs, financial aid and scholarships.
To Cornell, life’s three great equalizers are school, sports and work: “They were the only places I could find where bank accounts weren’t important, the size of your home didn’t count and no one really cared what my mom or dad did for a living.”
He grew up watching his mother struggle to pay bills and got his first job when he was 10 years old, washing giant trucks in the parking lot of a distribution center. Some of those trucks had green Tropicana logos on them — which would become one of nearly a dozen household retail brands that would shape Cornell’s career over the next four decades.
Though described as talented and tenacious, some who have worked with him say he still strives to understand and appreciate the front-line worker.
Before coming to Target, Cornell ran PepsiCo Americas Foods division, the company’s largest operating unit, which includes the snack business and such brands as Frito Lay and Quaker Foods. He faced many of the same consumer challenges as Target: changing demographics as baby boomers retire and the emergence of competition from online retailers, such as Amazon.com.
Analyst Mark Miller of William Blair & Co. described Cornell as a “sensible choice” for Target.
“He’s assertive, and he’s not afraid of change,” Miller said. “He’s been on the big stage before, but this is the biggest.”
After landing his first C-suite job in 2004, as chief marketing officer with Safeway, Cornell moved swiftly from one leadership post to the next, ascending to higher positions or finding ever-larger retail enterprises to manage every two or three years. Target is the largest.
Cornell left Safeway in 2007 for the top job at arts-and-crafts retail chain Michaels Cos. In 2009 he became the CEO at Sam’s Club, the discount membership chain operated by Wal-Mart Stores. While there, Cornell earned praise for boosting revenue, building private-label brands and drawing more upscale shoppers.
Early into his tenure at Sam’s Club, Cornell laid off 11,200 workers, or about 10 percent of the workforce, who were involved in product demonstrations in stores.
Maggie Nation, a vice president of marketing and communications at Sam’s Club while Cornell was there, said he showed “great empathy” both for the workers and for managers like her, whose departments were affected.
“He understood that people’s lives were affected … but that it was right for the business,” she said. “He made sure the data was there, and he didn’t drag it out.”
Even as a CEO, Cornell was a marketer at heart, Nation said, which she believes will benefit Target.
“He had great passion for data-led marketing, based on consumer insights,” she said. “This is what it’s about — the people who buy your products and doing your best to understand them.”