Target’s Brian Cornell Shares the Key to His Success
Target CEO Brian Cornell talks to TCB editor in chief Allison Kaplan at the Person of the Year event. Photos by Jordan Buckellew

Target’s Brian Cornell Shares the Key to His Success

"We are proud but humble", the Target CEO said as he was honored as TCB's 2019 Person of the Year.

“It’s a quiet time of year for us, we had nothing else to do tonight,” Target chairman and CEO Brian Cornell joked as he took the stage Tuesday evening at a Twin Cities Business event where he was honored as 2019 Person of the Year.

In addition to the “frenetic” pace of the holiday season, Cornell is enjoying a bit of a victory lap after marking his five-year anniversary at Target as shares hit a record high and third quarter sales grew 4.5 percent on top of 5.1 percent last year. Analysts expect a strong holiday season for Target, but Cornell isn’t one to gloat.

“We are proud but humble,” he told the crowd at Orchestra Hall of more than 400, including many business leaders on the TCB 100 list. “Because every day we get a scorecard, and every day we’ve got to compete for each and every footstep and visit to our site.

“These are the days that really count and hopefully it’s when we’re at our very best.”

Having famously arrived durning tough times for Target, Cornell talked about the two most difficult moments in his tenure, the first being the decision to leave the Canadian market, and the second being the day in February 2017 when he announced plans to invest billions into building and remodeling stores.

“It wasn’t very popular,” Cornell deadpanned on stage during a conversation with TCB editor in chief Allison Kaplan asked Cornell. “In fact, if you would have held an event that night, no one would have shown up.”

So what gave him the confidence? “Everyone was saying everything is going to go online but what we saw and what we heard when we talked to consumers was, they wanted an inspiring experience. They wanted to make sure it was really easy to shop, they wanted great quality and service. We recognized that there was still a consumer who wanted to shop a physical location but they had higher expectations. It led us to remodel our stores, create a more exciting shopping experience, open smaller stores in metro markets where we’d never been before. They wanted both a physical and a digital experience. They wanted it to be really easy, and they wanted to shop our stores and have it brought to their door. But they also wanted great customer service.”

Cornell talked about his approach to leading through tumultuous times. “It’s really important in our business to get out into stores, walk around, listen to consumers, and talk to our team. The answers are out there. You just have to be willing to take the time and listen and learn.”

Cornell catches up with Caribou Coffee president and CEO John Butcher, a former Target exec who is on this year’s TCB 100 list.

He also talked about what it was like to come in as the first outsider to lead Target. “There’s a huge responsibility that comes with being part of Target here in Minneapolis. I no longer feel like that outsider—this is actually my sixth winter in Minnesota—but coming from the outside taught me to step back and respect the history, respect the role our brand plays in the community, respect the legacy that is all about the Target history. I think I approached it thoughtfully, and with a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for the company history and the talent I knew was in this organization.”

As for 2020, Cornell said Target will continue to invest in store improvements with around 300 stores scheduled for remodel and new small format stores in the works for college campuses and urban markets.

“Our teams are always innovating and making sure we’re thinking about the future,” Cornell says. “Retail will be different in five years. We want to make sure we’re still leading the way.”

In honor of Cornell’s recognition as TCB Person of the Year, Disney, which recently launched a major partnership with Target, donated $5,000 to Make-a-Wish. On Wednesday, the accolades continued as CNN named Cornell its CEO of the Year.

See more photos from the Dec. 17 Person of the Year event.