In general, executives don’t serve on the boards of other companies out of generosity. Ideally, there’s an exchange of ideas and philosophies between board and director that benefits both parties. Fortunately for Kris Johnson, a director of Piper Jaffray Corp. (PJC) since 2003, that reciprocal relationship is ongoing.
“While I feel good about the value that I’ve added, I’ve always felt that as a board member I’ve gained as much as I’ve given,” says Johnson, who is part of a board that includes PJC Chairman and CEO Andrew Duff and seven active and retired executives from industries including media, grocery, financial services, technology and energy.
Since 2000, Johnson has been president of Minneapolis-based Affinity Capital Management, a venture capital firm that puts money into seed and early-stage health care companies throughout the U.S. Prior to that, she spent 17 years at Medtronic, concluding her tenure as chief administrative officer.
So what does a veteran of med-tech and health care have to tell the board of a giant in investment banking and asset management? Plenty, it turns out.
“Because I had experience in the med-tech/health care sector, it fit with what they called a strong vertical presence—a lot of their clients are in health care,” says Johnson. “My experience in venture capital meant that I had knowledge of the ecosystem around start-up companies and M&A activity related to that.”
Piper CEO Duff doesn’t mince words about Johnson’s value as his company’s lead director.
“Kris has been an incredible public company director and partner for Piper Jaffray,” Duff says. “She has the great ability to strategically focus on our key business issues, while always being forward-thinking around corporate governance. She’s helped us navigate many different operating environments, including the financial crisis, and we are a stronger organization with her on the board.”
Johnson agrees with Duff that the recession of the late 2000s created the roughest waters she and the board have had to navigate during her tenure. It was then that Johnson’s previous public board experience added needed stability. “The board in total provided a good sounding board for Andrew during that time,” she says.
Piper has repaid Johnson’s loyalty and stability by putting her in a trusted, fluid role. While on the board, she has gone beyond the traditional oversight of management, audit and compensation to work on issues related to the company’s strategic direction.
“It’s a very active, involved board,” Johnson says. “That role of being a strategic advisor is one that I think is particularly important. In Piper’s case, it’s meant moving away from the retail business—the traditional brokerage business—into new areas such as asset management and new verticals in the investment banking area.”
At 122 years old, Piper has improved its financial performance under its current board and moved into new investment banking sectors; it is no longer just an investment firm. That culture of versatility has broadened Johnson’s knowledge of business, she says, helping her realize that each business has a special set of value drivers a board needs to understand. That has helped her make sure she doesn’t presume too much similarity in the portfolio companies she works with at Affinity.
“Beyond that, I have certainly learned from my board colleagues and from Andrew about management styles and the importance of driving company culture,” she says. “All that is transferable knowledge that helps with my other business activities.”