Three days into the job, Target Corp.’s first outsider CEO has already shown how different he is simply by being seen.
Brian Cornell appeared before thousands of employees in a town hall-style meeting on Wednesday and spoke to hundreds of the company’s suppliers Thursday. He then flew to Canada for a firsthand look at the business unit that, for the moment, is Target’s biggest challenge.
On Thursday, Cornell sat down for his first interview since starting work and told the Star Tribune that he is humbled to lead such an “iconic brand.”
“I’m absolutely convinced that the best for Target is yet to come,” Cornell said over iced tea at a downtown restaurant.
With the job, Cornell, 55, becomes one of the most important executives in American retailing and, in the state of Minnesota, caretaker of a company whose roots go back 112 years to the original Dayton’s department store in downtown Minneapolis. The company today is the fourth-largest retailer in the United States and third-biggest company in the state by revenue after Cargill and UnitedHealth Group.
Target’s recent leaders, nonetheless, have kept a relatively low public profile. Cornell’s immediate predecessor, the ousted Gregg Steinhafel, gave few interviews and sent a deputy to defend the company in Washington after a big data breach last year.
To be sure, as the first person to lead Target who didn’t spend his or her career at the firm, Cornell has many introductions to make. Already, he has met hundreds of Target employees in the halls of its downtown headquarters. He’s also been fielding calls from prominent executives in town and some of the state’s political leaders.
“Clearly, I know I’m going to need to be very visible and engaged here in Minneapolis,” he said, noting he’s already built some familiarity with the region by serving on the board of Plymouth-based Polaris Industries Inc. “I’ve known many of the other CEOs for many, many years and I’m really looking forward to being a part of this community.”
He is taking the lead of Target after it dismissed a CEO for the first time and is trying to regain sales and profit momentum after stumbling with an expansion in Canada last year and experiencing a highly-publicized data breach.
Crafting a rebound won’t be easy. While the Great Recession technically ended a few years ago, consumers are still wary of parting with their dollars. That has been hurting in the bottom line of not just Target, but also Wal-Mart and other big box stores.
But Cornell is optimistic about the future. One of the company’s best assets is the deep connection many customers feel for the brand, he said. “The love that guests express when they talk about Target is really unique in retail,” he said. “So I think we’ve got to leverage that.”
It’s a passion shared by his children. Cornell said his 25-year-old son, Jonathan, called him up weeks ago and asked him if he had been contacted about the CEO vacancy at Target. Cornell said he had not.
“He was like, ‘Well, this is a great job. This is a great company. How do you figure out a way to apply for this job?’ ” Cornell said.
Soon after, Target called Cornell.
Upon starting work on Tuesday, Cornell said he didn’t want employees to have to lean on Google searches to find out what he is all about.
So on Wednesday, Target booked a hall at the Minneapolis Convention Center where nearly 10,000 employees gathered to hear him speak. Following some introductory remarks, he fielded questions for about a half-hour. Many of the questioners tried to glean Cornell’s vision for Target’s future and, more concretely, what areas of the store most interested him.
“Everyone was looking for, ‘Here is the Brian list,’ ” he said.
Given his background as a former executive of PepsiCo, Sam’s Club and Safeway, many wondered if food might be given a bigger stage.
No, he told them. “I’m not going to turn Target into a grocery store,” he recalled saying later. “Style, fashion, apparel, it’s core to the DNA of this company.”
And ultimately, he said, Target’s customers will have the biggest say in charting out the retailer’s future.
“It is an important lesson that I learned early in my career is that my vote shouldn’t count,” he said. “The votes that really count are the consumers’.”
While everyone wants to know what his plan is for Target, he said it’s too early to have any big answers and expects to say more early next year.
“I wouldn’t expect any changes in the next few months,” Cornell said. “I’m going to take my time to learn, to be really thoughtful. I’m going to spend a lot of time listening … I’m going to be a really good student over the next few months.”
He said the company’s interim leadership team moved in the right direction. And Cornell said he doesn’t want to interfere with the team’s focus on the upcoming all-important holiday season. As well, he said, “Going forward for Target, mobile has to be the front door to the brand.”
He said he plans to travel to as many markets as he can get to — probably a different one every week — and more employee meetings with smaller groups.
This week, his wife, Martha, has been scouring the Minneapolis area for their new home. They’ll narrow down the list next week, he said. The couple is also keeping their Connecticut home as a getaway.
An avid sports fan, Cornell is also looking forward to being able to walk from his office to games at Target Field and Target Center. And he expects to take in some Vikings games, too.
He remains a die-hard loyalist to the sports teams of his alma mater, UCLA. He noted that he has already discovered other fellow Bruins at Target, who e-mailed him to share their allegiance.
Before he caught a plane to Canada, Cornell swung by Target’s two-story store on Nicollet Mall, right next to headquarters.
He chatted with Murray Williams, the store manager there who has come to know Target’s previous CEOs on a first-name basis. Williams sent Cornell an e-mail as soon as his appointment was announced and offered to show him around the store. Thursday, he just got a quick tour.
“But we have another date next week,” Williams said.