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At NRF, Cornell emphasizes ‘agility, flexibility, adaptability’

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NEW YORK — Since taking the reins at Target Corp. in 2014 Brian Cornell’s game plan has involved listening to customers, then making sure the company has the flexibility to deliver on what’s most important to them.

Following the strategy has led Target to a pretty good place: The retailer is coming out of an exceptionally strong year-end holiday season, and in recent quarters has reported unprecedented market share gains across all five of its core merchandise categories.

“As we sit here today, I think we feel more optimistic than we probably did six months ago about where we are,” Cornell said this month during a keynote event at the National Retail Federation’s NRF 2022: Retail’s Big Show.

“We’re still living with COVID-19. Supply chain challenges are not going away. We’re certainly talking about inflation and the impact that might have,” Cornell said during an on-stage chat with NRF president and chief executive officer Matthew Shay. “So one of the things we’ve talked about a lot, from a leadership-team standpoint, is the continued focus on agility, flexibility and adaptability. And staying close to the consumer, our target, yes. We’re trying to make sure we can anticipate and adjust as needed.”

Cornell reminded Shay of a previous visit to NRF’s annual retail conference, in 2017, when he presented details of the retailer’s “different approach,” with its focus on talking to customers and testing concepts that emerged from the listening sessions. “We said, ‘We’ve been testing and learning, and we’re going to put billions of dollars into remodeling stores,’ ” Cornell recalled.

The message wasn’t well received, he said, with some analysts and media members scoffing at the notion of a retail renaissance centered on the in-store shopping experience.

“When people were not talking about remodels, we said, ‘We’re going to build new stores in urban centers like New York City, and on college campuses, and in new towns where Target had never been before. We’re going to invest in our brands. We’re going to use our stores as fulfillment hubs and activate 1,900 fulfillment centers across the country.’

“And we said, ‘We’re going to make a big investment in our team and increase our starting minimum wage and continue to invest in developing talent.’ Well, I was sitting in that room and it was a pretty cold reaction,” Cornell said. “But those investments in our team, in our stores, in our fulfillment model, things like pickup, drive-up and having a Shipt Shopper come to your home, well, those were really important during the pandemic.”

The NRF recently named Cornell as recipient of this year’s The Visionary award, which the federation presents annually to an outstanding industry leader. Past winners include Michelle Gass of Kohl’s, Mark Parker of Nike, Doug McMillon of Walmart and Chip Bergh of Levi Strauss.

Cornell is to receive the award on April 13 in New York.

“Brian Cornell’s purpose-driven leadership and strategic vision reflect an unwavering commitment to his team, and a keen ability to cut through the noise and truly understand what American families want and need,” Shay said in identifying Cornell as the award’s winner for 2022. “From spearheading billions of dollars in investments in Target’s team and bold business strategy, to cultivating a culture of care among hundreds of thousands of employees, to helping guide the industry throughout the challenges of the pandemic, Brian is an inspiring and innovative leader committed to making a positive impact inside and outside his company. Brian’s career and servant leadership are exemplary of why The Visionary award was created.”

Cornell stood out as this year’s winner for his success in creating a business model and culture that stems from Target’s core purpose: Helping all families discover the joy of everyday life, NRF said, adding that Cornell has prioritized investing in team members and placing stores at the center of Target’s omnichannel strategy to better serve the thousands of communities Target reaches.

Prior to joining Target as chairman and CEO, Cornell spent more than 30 years in leadership positions at retail and consumer product companies. Past roles include CEO of such renowned brands as Michaels, Sam’s Club and PepsiCo Americas Foods, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. He also served as chief marketing officer at supermarket chain Safeway.

“After thousands and thousands of interviews and sessions with our team we recognize that our culture is all about care. and growth, and winning together,” Cornell told his NRF audience. “We’re waking up every day saying, ‘All right, we’re going to start with care. Care for our teams. Making sure we’re doing the right thing for them.’ ”


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