As the last days of the year were ticking down the week before Christmas, Target CEO Brian Cornell led virtual town hall sessions from his office in Target's downtown Minneapolis headquarters, expressing gratitude to thousands of Target employees over Zoom for their work over the holidays.
With Target posting double-digit sales growth in late 2021 and Cornell set to be honored as a retail visionary by the National Retail Federation this month, many point to the 62-year-old executive's success. But in a recent sitdown with the Star Tribune, Cornell spoke more about the accomplishments of his employees and the company's culture rather than his own personal accolades.
"I think what underscores our success over the last four, five, six years is that commitment to team and recognizing that from a consumer and guest standpoint that human touch is still important," he said. "They like coming into our stores and interacting with our team members."
For his accomplishments as a retail industry leader, Cornell has been given the visionary award from the retail federation and is scheduled to give a keynote speech on Jan. 16 at the group's annual convention. Cornell serves on the National Retail Federation's board of directors.
Here are excerpts from the December interview edited for length and clarity.
Q: Target has solidified itself throughout the pandemic as an industry leader. How do you think you were able to stay ahead of the pack?
A: When I think about the visionary component, I think it starts with a team that's very externally focused, that's been listening to the consumer, listening to our guests, looking around corners and trying to anticipate the future and building a strategy and a set of capabilities to bring that strategy and vision to life. The team has had both the vision and the courage to listen to the consumer. Listen to the guest. Make bold choices that at the time weren't always popular.
We made the decision, as opposed to investing in upstream distribution facilities, we were going to leverage our 1,900 stores as mini-fulfillment centers and really use our stores as the center of our digital strategy and use stores as hubs across the country to leverage our proximity to the guest. When we started talking about that and unveiled it in February of 2017, it was not well received. It was a big bet. The convenience and ease it was going to offer, to me, that was the vision of the future that our team understood because they had been talking to consumers and talking to our guests.
Q: What are you most proud of about Target's performance during the pandemic?
A: At the end of the day, it doesn't fit into a financial model, and it's not something that you can easily demonstrate how this fits in to the success formula. But the collaboration and the way our teams have embraced this culture of care and growth and winning together, and how it connects to our purpose of helping all of those families we serve discover that little bit of joy in everyday life, I think that has been the glue that has brought the company together in a very unique way during the pandemic. And I think made us an even stronger company and a stronger culture.
Q: What are some of the challenges that still lie ahead for Target?
A: A retail business like ours with stores in 50 states and team members living around the world, these are not easy businesses to manage every day. In today's environment, we are worrying about whether COVID is still here. We are still sitting here with our masks today. Everybody is talking about inflation and supply-chain challenges and staffing and the list goes on. So we are in a very dynamic environment. But we wake up every day thinking about the guest and the consumer we serve, thinking about the things we need to do to make sure we are taking care of our team.
And I think one of the other components that has really come to life during the last 22 months is the recognition that agility and flexibility and adaptability are really important because the world around us just continues to change and we've had to adapt sometimes week to week during the pandemic. I think our team has really gotten much better at recognizing how agility and flexibility and adaptability has to be just part of our operating model as we sit here today.
Q: What does the retail federation's visionary award mean to you?
A: I really view the award as a recognition of the Target team and the vision and the courage the team had to make some really bold changes to our business going all the way back to 2014 and 2015. To me, it's really a moment of recognizing the leadership team and 400,000 team members across the world who have made a huge difference in our business and I think really have grounded the company in a true purpose and a culture of care and growth and winning together.
Q: Within the last two years, you have publicly commented on greater societal issues including George Floyd's killing here in the Twin Cities. What compelled you to speak out?
A: I think what's not new for us, but a growing realization, is that there are certain topics where our team and our guests expect us to show up. But when I think about George Floyd's murder right down the street and how that impacted so many of our team members and certainly our Black team members, we thought it was really important to clarify our point of view and to make sure that we made certain commitments to make an impact and make a difference. I thought it was important that not only Target take a position but that my voice was part of that. I think it was important for our team members to hear that we were committed, but also that I was also personally committed to having an impact and making a difference.
Q: As a sports fan, you once talked about the comeback story from your childhood of the 1969 Mets that won the World Series. Over the years, you have helped Target make its own turnaround. Do you think Target has won the World Series yet?
A: We have a lot to celebrate, but in our business there's no off season. We got to get ready to play the next game.