Inside the career of Brian Cornell, who ran Sam's Club before becoming Target's first-ever outsider CEO
Áine CainJan 29, 2019, 07.25 PM
Monica Schipper / Stringer / Getty Images
Target CEO Brian Cornell had decades of retail experience under his belt by the time he took the reins at the Minneapolis-based retailer.
In 2014, he became the first outside hire ever appointed as Target's CEO.
Before that, the Queens native worked at companies like PepsiCo, Sam's Club, and Michaels.
Target CEO Brian Cornell is unique among chief executives of the Minneapolis-based retailer.
In 2014, he became the first outside hire to take on the role as CEO of Target. Today, he leads Target's 323,000 or so employees spread across about 1,800 US stores, according to the company's website.
Long before he became a major retail executive, Cornell spent his youth working odd jobs and low-paying retail gigs in order to put himself through college. He then embarked on a decades-long career in the business, during which he held down roles at a number of prominent companies like Safeway, PepsiCo, and Walmart.
Born in Queens in 1958, Brian Cornell was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents.
Fortune reported that Cornell's mother suffered from chronic heart disease, and the family relied on disability checks to get by.
Cornell began working at an early age, taking on odd jobs throughout his childhood and teenage years.
To earn money for college, he began washing Tropicana trucks and other rigs at a distribution plant.
"I had to scramble and scratch for everything I have," Cornell told Fortune.
Cornell told Fortune that an assortment of retail jobs and a stint coaching a high school football team allowed him to pay his way through UCLA.
He graduated from the school in 1981, but returned a decade later to attend the Anderson School of Management.
Today, he sits on the Anderson School of Management's Board of Visitors.
After college, Cornell embarked on a career in retail that would propel him to the executive level of several major brands.
Unlike some executives, who stick with a single company for decades, Cornell has made a number of big moves.
In a call-back to his days washing trucks in Queens, he went to work for Tropicana. He remained there when PepsiCo bought the company in 1998.
Cornell ultimately took on a number of leadership roles, becoming the president of Tropicana and PepsiCo's North American food services president.
In 2004, Cornell left PepsiCo to become CMO of the California-based grocery chain Safeway.
He was a major driver behind the company's "Ingredients for Life" re-branding.
In 2007, Cornell left Safeway to take the helm of Michaels Stores, the arts and crafts retailer.
Cornell got off to a rough start, and Michaels lost $5 million during his first year there, The Minneapolis Business Journal reported. The CEO resigned a little more than a year after joining.
Up next, Cornell headed to Walmart, becoming CEO of Sam's Club. The Wall Street Journal reported that Cornell accrued a reputation for attracting wealthier members to the warehouse club.
His predecessor at Sam's Club? Doug McMillon, who now runs all of Walmart.
After three years with Walmart, Cornell returned to PepsiCo and was once rumored to be slated to potentially replace CEO Indra Nooyi.
Instead, in 2014, Cornell was brought on to lead Target. He was the first-ever company outsider to become CEO.
At the time, the retailer was reeling from a massive hack. CEO Gregg Steinhafel had resigned, largely as a result of the ensuing controversy. Cornell's selection was widely seen as an effort to bring in an outsider's perspective, according to Fortune.
"I have always looked at this company with admiration for the team, its capabilities and the strength of the brand — I'd say the connection Target has forged with its guests is enviable," Cornell said in a 2014 interview with the retailer's website.
Cornell developed a reputation as a hands-on CEO, often visiting stores to chat with employees and customers. In 2016, he even embarked on a number of home visits with different shoppers.
Under Cornell, Target has doubled down on its digital capabilities. And this past holiday season, the company saw the fruits of this labor when comparable sales grew 5.7% in November and December.
In addition to working at Target's CEO, Cornell serves as the non-executive chairman for Yum Brands' board.
Cornell also serves on the board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian.
Cornell and his wife, Martha, have a son and a daughter. The CEO said that his daughter — a fan of Target — was particularly excited about him taking the job at the retailer in 2014.
Bloomberg estimated that Cornell's annual compensation comes out to about $1.3 million.
When asked to discuss his passion in 2014, Cornell replied: "My passion is building loyalty and delighting consumers ... something that Target does extremely well."