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Regional Oral History Office University of California The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California Tyler Johnston THE DREYER’S GRAND ICE CREAM ORAL HISTORY PROJECT Interviews conducted by Victor Geraci in 2011 Copyright © 2013 by The Regents of the University of California

Regional Oral History Office University of California …...Melanie’s work at Leo Burnett—“The mayonnaise business,” snackable cheese, satirizing corporate absurdities—fun

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  • Regional Oral History Office University of California

    The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California

    Tyler Johnston


    Interviews conducted by

    Victor Geraci

    in 2011

    Copyright © 2013 by The Regents of the University of California

  • Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading participants in or

    well-placed witnesses to major events in the development of Northern California, the West, and

    the nation. Oral History is a method of collecting historical information through tape-recorded

    interviews between a narrator with firsthand knowledge of historically significant events and a

    well-informed interviewer, with the goal of preserving substantive additions to the historical

    record. The tape recording is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity and clarity, and reviewed

    by the interviewee. The corrected manuscript is bound with photographs and illustrative

    materials and placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and in

    other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material, oral history is not

    intended to present the final, verified, or complete narrative of events. It is a spoken account,

    offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply

    involved, and irreplaceable.


    All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement between The

    Regents of the University of California and Tyler Johnston, October 26, 2011.

    The manuscript is thereby made available for research purposes. All literary rights

    in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to The Bancroft

    Library of the University of California, Berkeley. Excerpts up to 1000 words from

    this interview may be quoted for publication without seeking permission as long

    as the use is non-commercial and properly cited.

    Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to The

    Bancroft Library, Head of Public Services, Mail Code 6000, University of

    California, Berkeley, 94720-6000, and should follow instructions available online

    at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/collections/cite.html

    It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

    Tyler Johnston “The Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Oral History Project”

    conducted by Victor Geraci, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft

    Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2013.

  • Table of Contents—Tyler Johnston

    Interview #1 February 15, 2011

    [Audio File 1] 1

    Family and educational background—UC Davis, UC Berkeley—Jazz and other

    interests, and “people skills”—Junior executive training program at Macy’s—

    Retailing, merchandising, consumer analysis—Promotion at Macy’s—

    Northwestern MBA program.

    [Audio File 2] 19

    Northwestern, cont’d.—Training in marketing—Internship at Jewel—Wife

    Melanie and her career—General Mills—Brand management position at Kraft—

    Melanie’s work at Leo Burnett—“The mayonnaise business,” snackable cheese,

    satirizing corporate absurdities—fun.

    Interview #2 February 25, 2011

    [Audio File 3] 38

    From Kraft to Dreyer’s—Meeting Rick Cronk—Team work at Dreyer’s—

    Meeting Gray Rogers—Accepting position as VP of marketing at Dreyer’s—

    Excitement, people, challenges—Initiation—Marketing and planning for the long

    term—Personal relationships and success at Dreyer’s—The Grooves as good

    business—Entering the New York market—Centralization and de-

    centralization—The Grooves in action.

    [Audio File 4] 56

    Building brand management side of Dreyer’s—New product development—Ben

    & Jerry’s—“Hiring smart”—Explosive growth at Dreyer’s—Regulations—

    Failure of some new products—Regional markets: Atlanta, Chicago—

    Unilever/Nestlé—Changing strategy—Creative PR and advertising campaigns.

    [Audio File 5] 76

    Mergers and acquisitions in the grocery business—Regional plants—Celebrating

    success—Mother of All Parties, Hoopla—Ben & Jerry’s—Creative brand

    marketing—Godzilla and Starbucks and other partnerships—Promotion of

    Dreyer’s—Going public—Research and development, new products, Dreamery

    and the super premium business.

  • [Audio File 6] 93

    Unilever/Nestlé, Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, Haägen-Dasz, and Dreyer’s—Making a

    deal—FTC regulations—Complexities of a joint venture—Repositioning—“An

    amazing ride”—Career trajectories of Dreyer’s management team—Corporate

    values—Values in practice—Failing forward—And trust: “Kind of magical.”

    [End of Interview]

  • 1

    Interview #1 February 15, 2011

    [Begin Audio File 1]


    Geraci: I am Vic Geraci, food and wine historian from the University of California

    Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. Today’s date is Tuesday, February

    15, 2011 and seated with me is Tyler Johnston. Mr. Johnston served as the

    executive vice president of marketing for Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. First of

    all, thank you for doing this. This is—


    Johnston: Absolutely.


    Geraci: —becoming part of our project. Let’s go ahead and start with your family,

    your birth, your parents, growing up, a little bit about the background about

    you, your education, and then from there we’ll move into your professional

    career. So I’ll just let you begin.


    Johnston: All right.


    Geraci: Begin at the beginning.


    Johnston: Begin at the beginning. Well, I’m a native of Northern California and I’m

    probably squarely in the middle of the middle class baby boom in Northern

    California. So I was born in Oakland in 1953, but my family at that time lived

    in Walnut Creek and that’s where I grew up. So I grew up in Walnut Creek at

    a time when there were walnut trees, there was a creek as opposed to shopping

    centers and banks. It was a town of maybe 20,000 people. Some parents

    commuted by Greyhound bus into San Francisco because BART was not built

    at that time. My dad was from Vancouver and had been in a few businesses,

    but generally in the selling side of businesses. Largely in insurance and then

    real estate and then for many, many years was a real estate agent and broker.

    Again, at a time when California real estate in those days meant a post-war

    building of tract homes out in the suburbs, so he was often out at



    Geraci: Well, that’s the East Bay over the hill was really starting to develop.


    Johnston: Right, right. [telephone ringing] I forgot there was a phone in this room. My

    mom is from Kansas and she came from a fascinating sort of family with a lot

    of pioneer history of wagon trains out to Kansas. Her dad was a country

    lawyer who became the attorney general who at one time had a promising

    political career back around the FDR time. My mom had four sisters. My

    mom studied in Kansas at the University of Kansas but then had a bug for the

  • 2

    television and radio business and so she drove out here with a friend to

    Hollywood way back to sort of get into the radio business if they could. She

    was one of the early women in the radio business. Not as an on-air talent but

    as stage manager and producer and that sort of thing.


    Geraci: That makes her a little bit of a feminist at this point.


    Johnston: Yeah.


    Geraci: For that era and that time, to strike out on her own like that for a profession,



    Johnston: Almost all the sisters were that way. Her other sister, who is my aunt, who is

    still alive, was even more so that way. Just for two minutes. She came out to

    Mills College, then started as a journalist. Was the first female sports

    journalist over in San Francisco. Then developed an affinity for photography

    and auto racing and became an auto race driver and a journalist and is still

    writing. I just saw her this weekend at the auto show in Chicago. She’s eighty-

    two and she still writes for AutoWeek and flies around the world to try out

    new cars. So there was certainly that bug in the family. My mom had all of

    that but I often think she went down the road more traveled, in that once she

    met my dad she got married and I think those early aspirations of the radio

    career sort of faded, at least temporarily. She channeled them back later after

    my brother and I were born. There’s two of us. I have an older brother. My

    mom worked for a while just in department stores and things like that, but

    then she got her teaching credential and became a very successful teacher,

    predominantly in middle school out in Walnut Creek. While she taught lots of

    subjects, leadership and English, her main love was drama and she was a

    drama teacher, a director. A director at the civic arts theater early on. One of

    the founders of the young repertory company out there. So theater and drama

    are also a theme—


    Geraci: A very big part.


    Johnston: —that kind of run in my past. I have one brother. We’re very different, as

    siblings often are.


    Geraci: What’s his name?


    Johnston: Robert.

  • 3


    Geraci: Robert.


    Johnston: He’s a chemical engineer. Very quantitative. That’s one of the main

    differences right there. And he still lives out in San Ramon Valley. And my

    upbringing was very straight ahead. That’s what I mean by being right in the

    center of the baby boom. We weren’t well off but we weren’t poor. We had a

    lot of family vacations but they meant camping on Mount Diablo, not

    traveling around the world.


    Geraci: This is the typical 1950s middle class white picket fence family story.


    Johnston: Exactly. Harvesting walnuts for the summer job and the like. And so I went

    through grade school and intermediate school, as it was called then, and high

    school all in Walnut Creek. I was pretty much a good student. My mom was a

    very strong force in our life. She was a teacher and she was going to have kids

    who studied.


    Geraci: Especially a middle school teacher.


    Johnston: Either qualitative or quantitative, regardless of skill set, we studied hard. So I

    had good grades through school. Both my brother and I picked up music early

    on. Played trombone. Started in about the fourth grade. Was picked for

    trombone probably the way everybody got their instruments back then. You

    stood in line and the band director looked at you and decided what you were

    going to be. So maybe I had one arm longer than the other or something. I was

    still short at that time, so I don’t know. But I ended up playing trombone. So

    music was a big part of my education. I was always playing in groups, on our

    bands and select groups around the Bay area and things like that. I also

    dabbled in theater a bit. Enough to sort of win awards at high school as far

    as—sort of fine arts awards and things like that. But my major interest was

    music and then just trying to get decent grades.

    I went through high school at an interesting time. I graduated in 1971 so I was

    catching the tail end of the sixties and, of course, a whole lot was happening,

    particularly through the tunnel, as one would say, in Berkeley. And a lot of

    my teachers were Berkeley, lived in Berkeley, my high school teachers. And

    so when there would be something at the Cal campus, tear gassing or the like,

    they would come to school, out to the suburb, and be quite wound up about

    what was going on. And so while I went through a suburban experience

    around that time of the late sixties, I was always proud to say that the Grateful

    Dead played at my high school and that only cost three dollars. We had


  • 4


    Geraci: Now, that’s amazing.


    Johnston: And I joined their fan club and they never sent me a darn thing. And so I

    never became a Deadhead. It’s the early marketer, I guess. But that was kind

    of an interesting time because there was a lot of turmoil and a lot of classes, in

    particular, were interesting. I had a teacher in eighth grade, an English teacher

    in eighth grade, that was so frustrated with what was going on at high school

    in terms of English—this will make sense in a second—that he said, “If you

    guys—” His bribe was, “If you study hard in this class in eighth grade and you

    really put your mind to it, this will be the last time you have to really study

    hard in English.” Now, that’s a nice incentive when you’re in eighth grade, so

    I studied pretty hard in eighth grade. And I saw what he meant when I got to

    high school. When I got to high school, our English curriculum was elective

    and you had about ten classes you could choose; film and study hall. Only one

    of them really pertained to sitting down and reading books and writing about

    them. I took one class which was film. The teacher had taken all the furniture

    out of the—all the desks out of the room and put in couches. Of course, this

    teacher lived in Berkeley. And we watched films and then it segued into doing

    improv comedy. So I got A’s in English in high school for doing improv

    comedy, which is later why, when I got to college, I had to take what was

    called bonehead English because I basically had a four-year hiatus of English.

    But anyway, that’s a little bit of the high school experience.

    It was always assumed I would go to college and it was largely assumed I’d

    go to somewhere in the University of California system. My folks really made

    enough money to not necessarily qualify for a lot of scholarship money but

    not enough to really afford a private university. And at that time, almost

    everybody I knew, you either aimed for one of the Cal campuses or you went

    to one of the state colleges, as they were known. My brother went to UC

    Davis. [telephone ringing] Sorry about the phone. And I visited him quite a

    bit. Liked that a lot. So that was my first choice when it came down to

    applying. Berkeley was not anywhere on the screen for me because most

    parents in the suburbs were saying, “Please don’t go to Berkeley or Santa

    Barbara,” because they were blowing up banks. But I got into Davis and I

    went. And that’s where I went in 1971.

    Not knowing what I would major in, thinking I would be pre-something, law

    or maybe medicine. My brother was more science oriented so I thought,

    “Well, I’ll take some of the science classes to head down the path.” And so

    then college for me was sort of like being in this long hallway where you try a

    doorway and then if it opened and no one yelled at you, you kind of went

    through it academically. If it didn’t open or you opened it and someone yelled

    at you, you said, “Well, maybe that’s not for me.”


    Geraci: I’ll close this door.

  • 5


    Johnston: That was chemistry. So the chemistry door was a little tough for me to open.

    Calculus somewhat. And I just kept trying different things. I said, “Well, I

    guess I’m not going to be pre-med after all,” and started taking different

    classes. I was always somebody who wanted to take a diversity of things

    though. College for me was great. I really enjoyed it. I remember walking,

    when I first got to Davis, walking into my very first lecture which was

    chemistry 1A in the largest hall at Davis, which was 200 students. Coming up

    the steps with a huge smile on my face and an upper classmen coming out of

    the lecture hall from the previous class. He looked at me. He says, “What are

    you smiling about?” [laughter]


    Geraci: [laughter] Get real.


    Johnston: That was my first day. I was like, “Oh. This looks like it’s going to be pretty

    fun.” So I did try a lot of things but I quickly sort of shifted from the sciences

    more toward—I took an economics class that I really liked. I took some

    history classes that I really liked and I started developing a little bit of an

    affinity over time at Davis for more of the social sciences, psychology and

    economics. However, as I looked at UC Davis in those days, it didn’t have

    any degree [in business]. If you wanted to major in business, you could piece

    together a degree in agricultural economics. But I wasn’t really big on

    agricultural economics. So while I had a blast, I loved UC Davis. I had great

    friends, great roommates that are still close friends today. I played a lot of

    jazz, of course, up there, and loved living there. I looked at it and said, “I can’t

    really stay here because I’m not finding the precise major.” I guess as a slight

    aside on that— I thought for a while about majoring in the arts. My mom

    pretty much talked me out of it. Again, she’s a pretty strong force and she had

    seen enough masters in fine arts over the years unemployed.


    Geraci: Or underemployed.


    Johnston: Or underemployed is probably a better way to say it. So she kind of pointed

    me a different direction on that. But nonetheless, I kept music as a big part of

    what I was doing. But coming into my sophomore year, I got very involved.

    Oh, yeah, I was very involved in lots of stuff. I was asked to join one of the

    parts of the student government that ran the program that brought speakers to

    the school. All sorts of different kinds of speakers. The Speakers Forum it was

    called, and it was run by a guy who was in my dorm, a year older than I, and

    he wanted me to join and then he wanted me to take it over from him later.

    And that was fascinating, because I’m pretty young and I’m meeting Jane

    Goodall and Ralph Abernathy. I have a great story about coming down here to

    pick up Ralph Nader and drive him up from Berkeley in a car that didn’t have

    seatbelts. [laughter]

  • 6


    Geraci: [laughter]


    Johnston: It was a university car. Oh, god. That was one of my more fun experiences.

    And, of course, Ralph Nader never slept a full night. He would just catnap. So

    you’d be talking to him on the drive up and then turn around and find out he

    was asleep in the car. And he’d just grab ten minutes every now and then. But

    I met all sorts of nationally renowned folks. So I was very involved in the

    school. It was very fun. But didn’t see a degree there for me. Most of my

    buddies and roommates were either going toward medicine or engineering.

    They were all happy in their academic track. So I looked around and saw that

    Berkeley had a business program. At that time it was a separate business

    school at Berkeley. It wasn’t the Haas School but it was just a separate

    business school. In those says, it was easy to transfer around the Cal

    campuses. But for the business school at Berkeley you did have to apply. So it

    wasn’t just go put your name in the box and transfer campuses. You did have

    to fill out an application. So I decided now is the time to do that. I should get a

    degree in something that is closer—


    Geraci: It’s like your junior year?


    Johnston: Yeah, for my junior year. So I picked everything up and moved to Berkeley.

    Knew just a couple of people there. And came in therefore as a junior into the

    business program, which was new. And then, of course, I think what I brought

    with me as my way of getting settled was music again. I joined the Jazz

    Ensembles program there, which was very active. It was a student run

    program. Really good jazz program which I’m, as a tangent, still involved

    with today. And hit it pretty hard. I decided at that point that I ought to focus

    on this. I wouldn’t say I just became a total bookworm but I took it pretty

    seriously. I wanted to do well. I didn’t know what I wanted to go do but I was

    starting to get a sense of kind of what are some of the things I like to do. I

    liked the world of business. I liked the marketing classes a lot. And in my

    other life, in the jazz program, I became very involved. I was asked to be the

    personnel director for this giant jazz festival that they were having for the first

    time. So it meant organizing 120 jazz musicians to do work, which was—


    Geraci: [laughter] That’s herding cats.


    Johnston: Yes, that’s herding cats. That ended up being on my application to business

    school as an achievement later on. And I eventually, the next year, became

    president of the Jazz Ensembles program. And so I started to realize I like

    being around people. I like the complexity of that and sort of the chaos of that

    and over here academically I was studying business, and liking the marketing

    element of that. But the nice part about the Cal program at that time was you

  • 7

    could get a business degree but it was still very much a bachelor science and

    liberal arts. So a lot of encouragement to take natural science classes, geology,

    psychology, sociology. I was still trying to take kind of a broad—


    Geraci: Still a traditional liberal arts student.


    Johnston: Yeah, yeah. With an emphasis, clearly. I graduated with a degree in business

    but when I look at that whole four years it was kind of a broad cut of a liberal

    arts degree and a fair amount of artistic stuff around the edges, with music

    being kind of a theme all the way through it. Music organizations.

    And so that takes me up to 1975 and I graduated in four years and started off

    then in the real world of, okay, now I need to work for a living. I bring this up

    because now I have a college senior son and I’m thinking back on what I was

    going through at that time. But one of the things my parents did, just to come

    back to them. My dad continued to sell real estate and early on got a job as the

    realtor at Rossmoor, the retirement community over at Walnut Creek. And my

    parents were reasonably young at that time but they sort of fell in love with it.

    He was working out there selling places. And so by the time I graduated, in

    fact the year I graduated, they sold our family home and moved to Rossmoor.

    So I thought it was a very clever way of blowing up the bridge to prevent—


    Geraci: [laughter]


    Johnston: They said, “You guys can come visit but you’re not allowed to live there. It’s

    not us. It’s Ross—”


    Geraci: It’s the rules.


    Johnston: It’s the rules. [laughter] Here’s a guest pass. So there’s never any question that

    it was time to—I got to go do something. It was never even a question of

    returning home. It was all about, “Okay, time to move on.” I started to just do

    interviews and my interviews—in those days there were interviews on college

    campuses at Cal. You’re in a temporary building. It was built after World War

    II and was still considered temporary. You go to the placement office. And so

    I interviewed in almost anything that looked friendly toward marketing or

    sales but I think back on it now and they were pretty goofy. Dean Witter in

    stock sales. Oil companies were big to come by for sales. And then retailers.

    And two retailers came. Emporium, a department store, and then Macy’s

    department stores. And they had a training program and it caught my eye. And

    I will also say I wasn’t looking outside of whatever the on campus interviews

    were. I wasn’t networking with people. Those were all more modern tools.

    And I interviewed with Macy’s and got to the second interview and kind of

  • 8

    liked what I heard, as crazy as that sounds. I never thought I would go into the

    retailing business or anything around the apparel business.

    In fact, my mom would crack up because when she was in the department

    store business, or anytime she ever took me to a department store, I would

    instantly start to yawn and yawn the entire time. And it would just be a family

    joke. I would go down to buy some new jeans or something and there I am

    yawning. And she says, “And you’re going to go work at a department store?

    You’ll be sleeping on the job the whole time.” So that was kind of funny but I

    think she was actually pleased I was employable.

    And so the interview was pretty intense, because they were interviewing for a

    class of people. They wanted to hire about thirty kids.


    Geraci: So they had like a leadership training program.


    Johnston: Yeah, yeah. I think it was called the management training program and you

    would come in as a junior executive. I later learned what junior executive

    meant. You’d go through some combined training with your class and then

    you’d start through this rotation of assignments. The idea would be you’d be a

    trainee for a while and then you’d become a department sales manager

    somewhere in a store and then you’d get into the buying office and move

    down the merchandising track. And if you kept on, then you’d go back into

    store management and back and forth. And I don’t know how much I thought

    through. It was a job opportunity. It felt good in that it was, okay, high pace,

    lot of people, marketing related and kind of fun and had a creative aspect to it.

    And they were going to pay me something.


    Geraci: [laughter] There’s the big one right there. They were going to pay me.


    Johnston: The offer letter was $7,600. But you get an employee discount and you’re a

    junior executive.


    Geraci: A great title.


    Johnston: Yes. Excuse me, it was $7,800. I have the letter in this drawer over here. And

    then they sent a second letter and said, “Good news. We’ve increased the

    salary to $8,400 a year.” By the time I started out of school, they had changed

    that. There’s one part in the middle of college I didn’t go into. Can I do that



    Geraci: Please do. Please do.

  • 9


    Johnston: I forgot about it. Because I did have some business experience in my

    summers. I was a camp counselor for one summer. But my college roommate,

    the first guy I met when I went to Davis, was a very unusual guy. He looked

    like a hippie but he was an Eagle Scout out of Monterey. Guy named Tony

    Stearns. Had a beard out to here and was already losing his hair and rode a

    sting ray bicycle around Davis. If you can imagine that look.


    Geraci: Whole image.


    Johnston: And we became best friends. We were put together as roommates. We became

    best friends. He had a business. He was always a business person but he had a

    business making handcrafted leather goods. Belts, purses, back in the day.

    And he’d go to fairs around the country and sell these things. So I ended up

    starting to work with him in that business while I was in college. One of the

    best summer jobs I ever had, he and his brother and I toured the country in a

    van for eight weeks and we spent one night in a hotel. That was the night

    Nixon resigned actually.


    Geraci: You wanted to watch some TV.


    Johnston: Wanted to watch TV and have a real good shower. And we spent eight weeks

    going across the country to three major state fairs and setting up for two

    weeks. Usually it was the Hari Krishnas next to us and the Mormons selling

    lemonade on the other side. We’d be there with our hippie belts and purses.

    And his brother had a beard and no hair and he had a beard. And we all wore

    jeans and blue work shirts and then we started joking with people that we

    were actually on a work release program from prison. It was the most fun but

    it was a fantastic business experience because it really was the retailing

    business. Quite literally, set up shop, sell, see what works, what doesn’t work.

    I know it sounds goofy but—


    Geraci: You were learning to interact with the people—


    Johnston: Yeah. And how you merchandise.


    Geraci: —at the ground level.


    Johnston: And how you price stuff, how you make a profit, and a whole lot of

    interaction. You think about a massive fair like the Allentown, Pennsylvania

    state fair at Allentown. You see America in those two weeks. Anyway, so it

    was a fantastic experience. So I did have elements of those kinds of business

  • 10

    experiences, as well, because Tony was constantly in business my first two

    years I lived with him and then we’ve remained friends to this day.

    So fast forward back to the retailing business. I took a break but I was broke

    after college. I didn’t pay for anything in college. My parents said, “We will

    pay for college.” So I didn’t work. I had a lot of off the dole kind of work that

    I was doing on behalf of different programs, the jazz program and stuff, but I

    didn’t have to work, which was really a blessing and I’ve actually modeled

    that. But they also made it clear that that was it. College is what they could

    afford and if you want to do something beyond that, you’re on your own.

    So I needed to start work right away. So I graduated in June of ’75 and started

    at Macy’s in August of that year and jumped full speed and headfirst into the

    wacky world of retailing, which I look back on and even at the time I really

    enjoyed. I learned a lot. And it was crazy. It was sixty hour weeks easily. As a

    junior executive, what that meant was you weren’t union and they could work

    you as long as they wanted to. And the employee discount was very cool,

    except it took that $8,400 a year that you were making and very quickly you

    found out that you were spending it on crock pots and designer suits that were

    in your department and you couldn’t pass up the deal because it was on sale

    and you got 20 percent off. So I was probably better dressed than most of my

    friends and had a better kitchen but I wasn’t really saving any money. And I

    was working all the time.

    Fun group of people. Crazy. Twenty-five, thirty people, very competitive, all

    trying to position themselves. So I learned a lot about, okay, the body politic

    that goes on. And very high paced. An interesting business in that there were

    good bosses and there were some really crappy bosses. There were seat of the

    pants merchants that were mysterious, many of whom became senior

    executives, and then basically their approach was because I went through all

    that crap, you have to go through all that crap. So you’re starting here and

    you’re going to work your way up that same ladder. I don’t care how smart

    you are or where you came from.


    Geraci: If I had to do it, you have to do it.


    Johnston: Right. And then there were some executives there that were different, that

    came in that were either just really pleasant people in the buying office or, in

    one case, and I’ll get to this one guy, an MBA who had come in and was

    trying to bring a little more of an intellectual approach to some of the stuff

    that was going on. But great training. You take a few classes, the next thing

    you know you’re ringing on a register in San Francisco downstairs in the

    middle of a sale and you barely know how to run the register and everybody’s

    watching you to see whether you can swim and how you interact with people.

    And people generally are upset when they’re in department stores. This was

  • 11

    long before Nordstrom made it cool to be positive in terms of customer

    service. So just wild stories. It was the late seventies. Disco was going crazy

    in San Francisco. Cocaine was in the workplace. People were sleeping with

    their bosses in the buying office as a way to get—it was like, oh, my god, this

    is crazy.


    Geraci: From this middle-class boy from—


    Johnston: Yeah. A long way from—


    Geraci: —Walnut Creek.


    Johnston: —the walnut tree. And I wasn’t yawning either. I was only yawning because I

    was exhausted. But very quickly I got placed, which was good. I had some

    good feedback. I remember one woman who was a peer in the group came to

    me and she said, “You’re going to do great in this because you care about

    people.” And I was like, “Well, that’s interesting,” because we were just

    friends going through the program together. So somehow I was exhibiting

    some affinity for working with people. I got placed very quickly in a

    department job to run a men’s department in San Leandro at Bay Fair. Newly

    remodeled store, so the eyes of the chain were looking at—and Macy’s

    California at that time was a rock and roll division. It was the success story in

    Macy’s, believe it or not. This goes back so far. But the guy who had turned it

    around was now the head of Macy’s New York, but what he did in California

    was the footprint for transforming Macy’s across the country. So it had a lot

    of cachet in the business. So I got placed early and it was great. Everybody

    said, “You got to get a job in the downtown store because that’s where you

    can be seen,” because all the buying offices were in the store.” They weren’t

    in an office, they were in the store. They were all hidden behind the

    stockrooms and stuff, these little rabbit warrens of cubicles and people

    screaming on the phone to vendors in New York early in the morning. It was

    just “insane.” You don’t want to go to a branch store because you’ll be


    Well, so the job comes up. They say, “We want you to go to Bay Fair. It’s

    kind of brand new. New department, new store. Just recently remodeled. It’s

    about to have its debut with all the executives coming there.” And I wasn’t

    going to say no. So within a month of starting I was now a manager. Great

    experience. You come in and here’s your team, and your team ranges from

    teenagers and part-time people to guys over here selling men’s suits who have

    seen twenty guys like me come and go, and they could give a crap that I’m the


  • 12


    Geraci: You’re just the new raw meat that’s just going to—


    Johnston: New guy, and, “What are you going to teach me. I’ve been selling suits for—”

    And so as my first experience at trying to pull a team together, if I think back

    about it, and great lessons. Some very positive, things that worked, some

    things you look back on and go, “Boy, that was really stupid. I have to do that

    differently.” In fighting with the store management, assistant manager of the

    store who didn’t like the managers, so you quickly became like the kid who

    was in between fighting parents. Lots of interesting experiences.


    Geraci: This is a good trial and error education.


    Johnston: Yeah. So my first breakout was I started to make observations about what was

    going on. The buying office is pretty far away. I’m in this branch store. And

    there’s just stuff that’s really strange. I have a few shoe department, and I

    never have the right assortment. Never. Because they’re in San Francisco,

    they’re marking in a book, “Send two dozen of these to these stores,” and

    that’s about as sophisticated as it was. So I decided, “I got to tell them that we

    need to do this differently.” So I wrote a report and I decided to use my

    limited marketing knowledge from Cal and I said, “I’m going to study my

    consumer.” I wrote this report. I think I still have a copy of this thing. And it

    was called The Bay Fair Men’s Shoe Consumer. I typed it up and it was about

    five pages of here’s who I think is in this store and here’s our assortment and

    why it doesn’t work and here’s what I think we need. I tried to write it in

    whatever I had learned about business writing and with an executive summary

    and a few of those things. And I typed it up and I sent it over to the buying

    office. Well, this apparently had never been done before. I didn’t send it to the

    president of the company. I sent it to the buying office, and the buyer loved it

    and just said, “This is fantastic. I wish all of our managers—“ there were only

    twelve stores at that time—“would do this.” And he sent it to the director of

    stores, of all of the stores, who is this guy named Clark Stone, who people

    used to call Clark Rock. And everybody feared him. And so he either called

    me up or sent me a letter about it. I was like, “Wow. I guess you can sort of

    make a difference.” The funny part of the thing was, of the write-up, was in

    there I talk about we have a rather “elderly,” and I put in parentheses, “45 and

    up,” closed parenthesis, consumer here. And, of course, they all had massive

    amounts of fun with this because every executive in the company was, of

    course, in that category.


    Geraci: Was elderly.


    Johnston: Yeah. So they picked on me a little bit for that. We did well. I think we did

    well because we were a new store and newly remodeled but I became one of

  • 13

    the sales manager of the year kind of things and got to go to a big award

    dinner at Trader Vic’s with the president of Macy’s. So I’m now six months

    out of college and kind of liking this. I have some authority. I’m away from

    the mother ship, so I have flexibility. People are listening if you think about

    things a little different than they’ve been thought about before and I kind of

    liked it. I think I did that for about a year, which was about the typical term or

    maybe a little less than the typical term. And every department has a manager

    and many of those managers were coming out of the class. Some of them were

    not doing well and I could hear what they were doing or how they were doing

    it. So I just observed how does fit really work. Not trying to be political but

    just trying to see where some people would trip up.

    Anyway, I got promoted to the next step of the training, which was now to

    come back to the buying office and be an assistant buyer. Still a junior

    executive. I got a decent raise, so I’m probably now making $10,000 a year

    and still buying again. This is a good time.


    Geraci: So you’re well dressed.


    Johnston: It was a good time to have me as a friend or if you were getting married

    because I could always give a pretty good gift because of my store discount.

    Lots of crock pots. I went into the buying office for, believe it or not, table

    linens and I had this delightful buyer. So she’s in a different zone. She’s not

    crazy like a lot of the apparel people screaming thinking that you win through

    intimidation. She’s, in fact, a very pleasant woman with great taste and very

    calm and a perfect teacher for me to come in to the buying office because—

    and the domestics group was a tight group headed by a guy named Larry

    Graeber, who was a fantastic boss. He was much more of a seat of the pants

    merchant but he was a very positive people person. He was tough but he

    would encourage his team. So the group was really tight. It was largely all

    women. In fact, most of my bosses in my career, up until Dreyer’s, were

    women. But this buyer I had was great and she took me under her wing. I

    learned a lot from her because she had a calm approach to this and I saw that

    that actually really worked instead of the sort of—


    Geraci: The sky is falling.


    Johnston: Yeah, hair on fire kind of thing that goes on. And I literally mean it. When it

    went on, we were all in cubicles and you heard everything. So when

    somebody’s screaming at somebody you heard it all day long. So probably

    like a female version of the trading desk at Lehman Brothers or something.

    But it was really a good experience and it was a cool little business. What I

    learned there was you first go, “I don’t know anything about table linens. I’m

  • 14

    not sure I really want to learn a lot about table linens,” but you take it as a



    Geraci: But that was a good time for those type of goods. Williams Sonoma is really

    starting to come out at this point. Americans are—with consumable income,

    their disposable income, they’re making decisions to go up.


    Johnston: To upgrade. Absolutely. That was going on and Macy’s had redesigned a lot

    of the store toward that. So the development of The Celler as the place for

    housewares, that was going gangbuster because it’s the first time housewares

    got out of Sears and became kind of cool. The same thing was going on on the

    domestics floors. A lot of the designers, the fabric designers, the Marimekkos

    of the world, were realizing that—and the big mills in Carolina, were realizing

    that there was a lot of money in value added scrap, in a way. You could bring

    a designer orientation to what had just been a fabric business. And towels. The

    other thing I learned there. The towel business. This sounds so fundamental,

    but it was easy—it’s Merchandising 101. The towel area had been redesigned

    at Macy’s and it was the first time somebody did vertical merchandising, of

    putting a towel wall all the way up. And so they stacked merchandise halfway

    up and then have a Styrofoam element that would go all the way to the ceiling

    where you could tuck one towel up so it looked like you had merchandise

    going floor to almost ceiling. So you had these walls of color. I started to learn

    all—some of those basics at merchandising. Full racks. You need to have the

    full presentation. Nobody wants the last thing. You always have to neaten it

    up or fill it up. How to suggestion sell? How do you accessorize? How do you

    put things together so you sell three instead of one? It’s so fundamental but

    that’s what I got to learn. That was my education daily. And I remember when

    I got to that store, somebody—oh, back when I was a trainee, one of the

    domestic buyers had me for a day and she says, “I want you to reorganize

    this.” These were all a bunch of glassware and bowls and vases in this atrium

    setup. I started to put it together. She walks down an hour later and she goes,

    “You’ve got it.” I said, “I have what?” She goes. “I can tell. You’ve got it.”

    And that didn’t help me because it was mysterious.


    Geraci: I didn’t know what I had.


    Johnston: I don’t know what I did. I sort of did it in a way I thought made sense. But

    that was what some of the teaching was. You had it or you didn’t. And then I

    had this buyer I was working with who could really nurture that and give me

    more of a method toward it. So it was very cool. And you’re right. We were

    selling quite a bit. The department was doing well. So I had a great year. That

    was a little less than a year, as well. And then as these things go, I got

    certainly a decent evaluation and I moved to my next job in the buying office,

    which was to be a senior assistant buyer or associate buyer in boys clothing,

  • 15

    young men’s clothing. And then I fall in with this young MBA, a Harvard

    MBA named Sam Leask, whose family had been in the department store

    business for years in Santa Cruz and had some small stores. And Sam was one

    of the first experiments with hiring an MBA. There were maybe three of them

    there. So Sam was a merchant. Came up in through the family business but he

    had a great head on this shoulder. He’s out of Harvard and he’s bringing an

    analytical approach to what otherwise was still checkmarks in books kind of

    stuff. Computers were nowhere. There were people doing inventory control by

    checking little books. They sat on the other side of the Styrofoam wall from

    you and you handed things to them. It’s amazing. But Sam very calm. He’s

    going to bring an analytical approach to boys clothing. The boss, a woman

    named Rose Marie, a very elegant, talented, seat-of-the pants merchant again.

    So I had both situations where I had a good nurturing environment but a sort

    of spiritual leader above that, if you will, in merchandising. The children’s

    group was pretty tight and we were doing pretty well. And Sam was, “Okay,

    it’s time for you to have some stuff of your own.” And so he really carved off

    responsibility for me.” I had another funny—I won’t go through that story.


    Geraci: No, go ahead. [laughter]


    Johnston: No. Okay, I’ll stay where I am. Sam, and he said, “I want you to—I’m going

    to give you a piece of—“we had classes of goods. He gave me outerwear. So

    now it’s young men’s size eight to twenty. I was helping him buy suits. And,

    frankly, we sold a lot of those suits to adults in San Francisco because a lot of

    the population in the city was smaller sized and you could have a Yves Saint

    Laurent suit in boys size twenty, which was about a thirty-eight men’s size for

    about half the price that the same suit would be in size forty in the—


    Geraci: In the men’s.


    Johnston: —men’s department. So shoppers figured that stuff out. So we were doing

    really well in the sort of goofy designer stuff, which sounds—but he gave me

    outerwear. Outerwear at that point had been jackets. Big, big jackets. Big,

    dumb jackets that I wore when I grew up in Walnut Creek. But I had been

    living in Berkeley and hanging out with outdoors oriented people and my

    roommate, Tony, I told you a lot about, we used to do other stuff other than

    just the leather stuff. We’d do spelunking and mountain climbing and river

    rafting. I forgot about all that side. I did a bunch of that. And so I got

    responsibility for this and I had seen that—I always thought that one of the

    best things for California was a vest. Was basically down vests, because we

    all wore them when we were camping. They were quite functional and perfect

    for California climate because it keeps you warm but you can stay active. But

    they were all kind of walking around in Michelin tires at that time, especially

    in the boys stuff. So I decided I’d work with the manufacturer and let’s

  • 16

    develop a line and make a huge marketing push against vests for boys, for

    kids. It was great. And Sam gave me the whole thing. And, of course,

    everything in retailing is on a drop dead timing. Depending on the department,

    you have from two to four seasons per year that you’re getting ready for. It’s

    always a crisis. You’re either too early or too late with everything and you got

    to get your markdowns timed correctly, of course. At that time we had also

    been dealing with outerwear at a time when California was in a drought. I had

    a great lesson there, because we took the huge markdown on all of our

    clothing one year, one season, because it hadn’t rained at all and it was so

    warm and stores were filled with jackets. We took the march of death

    markdowns and about a week later it’s pouring rain. It made me never want to

    be a farmer.


    Geraci: And you had no stock left?


    Johnston: We had no stock left. We got rid of it all. But anyway, Sam gave me the

    responsibility. I got to build out the down vest program and it was very

    successful. We put little chevron stripes on things so it had some color with

    down vests. They sold out crazy. So I got to go to the show and actually work

    with the vendor, negotiate the deal, work on the pricing, work on the design. I

    certainly had a coach but he was pretty hands-off. So that’s Sam. He’s a great

    guy. I’m still in touch with him today. He’s now doing development work for

    the San Francisco opera.

    And the group was tight. I remember this because we had some funny habits

    and Sam always tells this story. We’d always have lunch together. I’d always

    go upstairs to the cafeteria at Macy’s on the top floor, which is now the

    Cheesecake Factory. And I’d always order the chef’s plate, the diet plate,

    because it was a whole plate of cold cuts and they gave you bread and you

    could put potato salad on it. And everybody in the group thought this was the

    funniest thing in the world, that I would order the diet plate and then pile it

    with food. And so to bring that all around, at my going away party, at a nice

    restaurant, they actually brought in the diet plate from—because I had that

    quirky little habit.

    But I started to just raise the idea of, I don’t know, maybe, “I like this but I

    don’t know if I want to do this forever.” It’s analytically not very satisfying.

    I’m learning and all of that but it’s still so much a seat of the pants business.

    And maybe I was reflecting on if you write one report about your consumer

    you stand out as being a forward thinker. I feel like I need a little more

    stimulation. I wasn’t sure what that was. There were people leaving at that

    point, leaving the training program because you get picked off by the vendors

    on the other side. They really wanted to hire the—but I didn’t want to just go

    sell. So Sam said, “Have you ever thought about business school?” And I said,

    “Yeah, a little bit. I don’t know much about it.” And he goes, “I know you like

  • 17

    marketing.” I said, “Yeah, I do like marketing.” And he started to talk to me

    about business school generally and what he learned at Harvard and what it

    was like.

    On the other side of my life, one of my Berkeley roommates, who was a year

    younger than me, had himself discovered economics. I’m not sure what he

    wanted to do for a living. He went off to business school at Northwestern. So I

    kind of started talking on both sides of this. And Sam said, “Well,

    Northwestern—The guru of marketing in the world is on the faculty at

    Northwestern. His name is Phil Kotler and he’s written the book that we all

    studied in Harvard on marketing.” I said, “Really?” So he got me thinking

    about maybe business school. Maybe just to go have a hiatus for a couple of

    years and come back to the retailing business. But he wasn’t selling me on

    that. He was just interested in me personally, which was—


    Geraci: He was just helping you with your options.


    Johnston: Yeah, yeah. So that conversation developed further and he brought in or I

    brought in some material on Northwestern and I looked in the back and

    looked up a little bit about the faculty and I looked at where people were

    being placed when they came out of business school and all those companies

    looked kind of interesting. This whole fuzzy area called brand management.

    And it sounded a little bit like what I’d been doing. Small groups of people

    centered around a business, responsibility early, but it had much more

    theoretical and analytical rigor around it relative to just the merchant class.

    And meanwhile my buddy’s back at Northwestern and he’s loving it, even

    though he’s not really going toward marketing. And I don’t really recall a

    moment I said, “I’m going to go do this,” but obviously I came to that point of

    view. I said, “I think I’m going to apply,” and talked it through with Sam. He

    thought that was great. And I started to go to work on that, to look at business

    schools. So I applied to Northwestern because of that background. I applied to

    Berkeley, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Berkeley because I had

    gone there as an undergrad. I applied to UCLA. I wasn’t sure what I was

    going to do or how I was going to pay for it because my parents were very

    clear. I had done well. I was now making twelve, thirteen thousand dollars a

    year. But I had some savings bonds, maybe, and that’s about it. Maybe a

    couple hundred, a few hundred dollars in the bank. So it was pretty daunting

    to look at but I just figured, and my buddy Chris who was at Northwestern just

    said, “You get loans. You’ll figure it out.”


    Geraci: Now, you were about twenty-five at this point?


    Johnston: Yeah. I’m twenty-five. Yes, I’m twenty-five. Twenty-four probably when I’m

    doing the application. So I went to work on it and so now in that time of

  • 18

    retailing when I’m working sixty hours a week, and that never quit—at one

    point I ended up getting mononucleosis in the midst of the retailing thing and

    kept coming into work and I finally had somebody physically say, “You got to

    get out of this building. You can’t even walk up the stairs.” But you never

    wanted to miss it because it had that kind of vibe. But now I would come

    home and study for the GMATs. I was never good at tests. I had okay SATs,

    enough to get into Davis, but I knew that would be the toughest part. I started

    to develop who would I go to for recommendations and, of course, Sam was

    one of them, who had worked with me and had an MBA. I went back to this

    very important mentor I’ve left totally out of this story, I shouldn’t have, who

    was the head of the UC Jazz Ensembles. I worked with him directly only for

    two years but he became a lifelong kind of mentor. His name was David

    Tucker and he put me into the leadership roles of the Jazz Ensemble and he

    was just a great coach as far as running that organization. So he was a letter of

    recommendation. One of my mom’s friends from Kansas dad it turns out was

    one of the early deans of the Harvard Business School. So she had me come

    out to Rossmoor and go spend an hour with him. So I put a little tie on and

    went over there and talked about why I wanted to go to business school and he

    wrote a letter of recommendation for me. So those were good. I had good

    work credentials and I had a lot of involvement in stuff. And my GMAT

    scores were okay.

    So turns out my buddy Chris is on the admissions committee, because they

    had students on the admissions committee, and he sees my application come

    in. So he gives me the, “We got your application. It’s great. Everything looks

    good, but you might want to think about taking the GMATs one more time.”


    Geraci: You might want to get those scores up.


    Johnston: Yeah, so I did. I went down and isolated myself, again studied, and moved

    them thirty points or something. I think it was more. It was just enough or

    whatever. So I got into Northwestern. I got into UCLA. I did not get into

    Berkeley, which was kind of interesting, but I’ve sort of written that off as—I

    always knew that at business schools they didn’t really want to have too many

    people go from the undergrad program into the grad program. But on the other

    hand, who knows?


    Geraci: No, there’s that feeling of intellectual incest almost.


    Johnston: Yeah.


    Geraci: You want your students to move to different places.

  • 19


    Johnston: Yeah. And this is at a time when business schools are developing two year—

    two years is the minimum work experience required. Let’s get people in there

    who aren’t just—who have real work experience. So they were clearly looking

    for diversity. I went down to visit UCLA. It was a good business school, had a

    good program in marketing. But I went down there and it was, I don’t know,

    let’s just say it was a winter month. I’m not precisely sure. And it was a

    stunningly beautiful day and I’m walking around the UCLA campus and

    everybody’s out on the lawn reading their books and it’s beautiful people out

    on the lawn on a beautiful day and I looked at it and I said, “I can’t come



    Geraci: It’s Southern California.


    Johnston: I’m doing this to get myself ahead and to study and to focus. I know that when

    I study I couldn’t study in my apartment. I had to go to the library. I know I

    needed a cubicle. It was just my nature. I tend to be rather broadly distracted

    with a lot of different things. I can’t do that. And furthermore, my buddy back

    in Chicago, he said, “It’s great. It’s a great program.” And so I told my

    parents. I said, “I’m going to graduate school.” As part of the application I got

    enough student loans. I got it all on loans basically. I had some two percent

    loans and some eight percent loans. And at that time it was $8,400 a year in

    tuition, which was a lot given that I had come through Cal. But everybody

    said, “Ah, you just get the loans and starting salaries coming out. You’re

    coming in making $13,000 a year, you’ll come out at an average salary of

    twenty-five, twenty-six thousand and so it doesn’t take too long to pay off the

    loans.” And it just all kind of, “Yeah, I’m ready for this challenge.” And Sam

    was ecstatic when I got into Northwestern, which is now called Kellogg. But

    he was thrilled. And they threw me a big party. They gave me a little

    keychain, which I still have today, that says, “California’s Best” on it, partly

    because the division was Macy’s California but also because we would always

    all get together and talk about how California was great. So anyway, I have

    now spent three years at Macy’s. I was in three different jobs there.


    Geraci: We’re at a perfect point to stop, just finishing with the Macy’s there.


    Johnston: Great, okay.

    [End Audio File 1]

    [Begin Audio File 2]


    Geraci: Gotcha, okay. This is Vic Geraci. Today’s date is Tuesday, February 15, 2011.

    Seated with me is Tyler Johnston. This is interview number one, tape number

  • 20

    two. When we left off we were talking about business school. Let’s try this



    Johnston: Okay. So I left the Macy’s career after three years and three different—three

    different positions. Packed everything in my rundown Toyota Corona,

    everything I owned, and drove back to Chicago to start business school. I

    think it’s probably time to put this thing out in the open, which is as I thought

    about it, I’ve been motivated a lot of my life by essentially—not necessarily

    an abundance of confidence, but kind of the other side of that. A wonder of

    whether I could make it or not. So I think everything I’ve joined, unlike

    maybe lots of captains of industry who might project that they were ready to

    conquer everything, almost everything I’ve joined I’ve had many moments of,

    “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to cut this.” And that was true in college

    and that was true in the transfer to Berkeley. It was absolutely true at Macy’s.

    And frankly, it was true all the way through my career. So that’s how I was

    feeling when I was driving across the country. I’m going into an environment

    where there’s now going to be a whole lot of smart people with good

    experience in a high—and I was presuming a highly competitive environment,

    and I hope I can cut it. That’s honestly what I felt. The fact that I had a

    roommate back there that was thriving in the program helped a bit. But a fair

    amount of anxiety. But that’s always been more motivating than demotivating.

    It’s never gotten me to the point of not giving it a shot. It’s more probably that

    I’m going to work really hard at it.


    Geraci: But isn’t that a normal or a natural thing?


    Johnston: I’ve met people who certainly project a different approach, who aren’t as

    maybe—who certainly appear to be, “Hey, I’m going to go take that on and I

    can do it. I’m positive I can do it.” And that certainly is a path to success. I

    think it’s put me in a situation where I tended to work harder. It becomes self-

    fulfilling in that the concern about am I going to succeed or not gets you into

    an environment of saying, “I’m going to work that much harder at it.” So I

    studied a lot in school. I worked hard at it. I took it pretty seriously. So I think

    maybe it’s more natural but it certainly has been a thread throughout

    everything I’ve taken on. There’s times it can really get in the way because

    there’s times you need to walk in a room without that in your head so that you

    don’t trip yourself up, in a way.


    Geraci: Right.


    Johnston: And I think I got pretty decent at that over time. Board presentations and

    things like that, or presentations in front of 500 people. I would always project

  • 21

    that I was quite calm, even though probably prior to I was quite, quite


    So packed everything in the car, drove across, rang up my buddy. I said,

    “Let’s go get a beer.” And he said, “Well, you’re in Evanston now. We have

    to go to a restaurant because you have to buy three dollars worth of food in

    order to have alcohol.” That was something I didn’t research at that time.


    Geraci: [laughter] That can get expensive every time you want a beer.


    Johnston: Yeah. Oh, god. So that’s Evanston. It’s different today, but that was Evanston

    back then. Because I was from out of state, I was staying in this dorm. The

    school did not have enough housing for the business school, so they had an

    arrangement with a women’s—well, it wasn’t a women’s. It was called the

    National College of Education, which is also in Evanston. They had a dorm

    that they insisted be segregated women and men, but they only had—they had

    80 percent of their student body were women, so they could never fill the

    men’s side of the dorm and they’d rent out the third floor of this dorm to

    business school students. I only bring that up because I’m now out on my

    own. I’m away from college, I’ve lived in my own apartment for three years.

    I’ve been working on my own. And now I go back into a dorm environment in

    a Midwestern college, basically, with rules that we’re going to inspect the

    rooms and there’s no alcohol allowed. You can’t go over to the women’s side

    of the dorm and you’re kind of saying, “What?” But that created, again, a nice

    little community of all of us from out of state who had the same reaction of,

    “You’ve got to be kidding?” because they’ve all been off working and living.


    Geraci: And especially for a business school.


    Johnston: Right.


    Geraci: You have to have a few years experience as part of your résumé.


    Johnston: Right, right. So it was a bit of a paradox as to where we were living. But I

    walked into the program for the first—this wasn’t quite the chemistry thing in

    college but I was—walked in in my bellbottom Levi or jeans, some kind of

    jeans, and my KNBR t-shirt and the admissions director said, “You must be

    Tyler,” because I think they’d admitted maybe four people from California,

    and by process of elimination we stood out. And my wife tells me the story of

    still seeing me dressed that way. So I was insisting I was going to dress as a

    Californian even though I was now in Evanston, the land of button down

    collars and crew neck sweaters and khaki pants.

  • 22

    But I jumped into the program. It’s a two year full-time program. Because of

    my undergraduate degree in business, I could pass out of a couple of classes,

    of the introductory marketing classes. I didn’t elect to do that in many cases,

    because I had a feeling that whatever I was about to go through was—maybe

    it was good remedial and it was going to be at a much higher level. And I just

    fell into it. The program was intense. Very, very stimulating and a great group

    of people. Today, just to reflect on it, I do a lot of recruiting for Kellogg. I’m

    on many boards back there. But quite honestly, if I was in trouble and needed

    to call, I had the chance to call ten people, six or seven of them would be

    classmates of mine from that experience who I’ve stayed close friends with,

    and the others would be from Dreyer’s. So that would be my bail me out call



    Geraci: Yeah, help.


    Johnston: Again, it is highly stimulating because you’re immediately in a class with

    sixty people in your section and now everybody wants to do well and you see

    all sorts of behavior. You see the kids who are naturally just really bright who

    maybe don’t have to work that hard at it. You see the ones who want to sit in

    the front row. I was probably more of a back row, back third of the

    auditorium, but then once I got in the rhythm of it, I’m going to raise my hand

    and start asking questions.

    In passing out of the introductory class, I jumped into a second year class in

    marketing, a class generally reserved for second year students. My advisor at

    the time was the professor that taught this class. It was an advertising class.

    He talked through my background and he let me into the class. So as a first

    year student, first quarter—yeah, first quarter, maybe second quarter—I’m

    taking advertising. Today he’s still a long-time friend of mine, I teach and I

    lecture and give ice cream cases in his classes. But a fantastic experience

    because now I was in with kind of the big kids right away and I started to see

    that I had, in fact—the experience I had at Macy’s, plus my interest in the

    subject matter put me in reasonably good shape to compete, in a sense of

    competing on ideas.

    Northwestern is built on group work, what differentiates it. The school

    experience is that almost from the time you get there you’re in teams and

    small groups and your grade is the group grade, regardless of the class. That

    could often be an accounting class or a finance class. Certainly true in

    marketing. Secondly, it was a real strong marketing department. Almost

    everybody that was there was tops in their field. This is thirty years ago now.

    And it was gaining the reputation of being the thought leader in the country

    relative to marketing. So fantastic experience. Sort of in the crucible and

    working hard with a lot of students.

  • 23

    You very quickly start to get into what do you want to do for a living? Kind of

    what do you want to do coming out the other end. I wanted to go there to put

    the clutch in a little bit and think about do I want to go back to the retailing

    business or is there something else? What is this brand management thing?

    And I started to think that’s probably where I wanted to head. At that time,

    Kellogg was putting most of the market—most of the majors were in

    marketing, the majority of the school. The top of the list of majors would be

    marketing majors and the majority of those folks were going into brand

    management. You very quickly learned that you need not only to go to

    graduate school, you need to go to post-graduate school. Post-graduate school

    is get a job with General Foods, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, maybe

    Frito Lay, and go to one of those kind of academy companies to learn brand


    But I had other interests that developed. I really liked advertising. I liked

    studying it, thinking about it. I liked the creative aspect of it. I hadn’t given up

    on the retailing business, but my major thrust in that first year was immerse

    myself, try to visit—hit as many presentations as possible from companies,

    and naturally start to build some really, really great friendships. That group

    work, though, teaches you, if you didn’t know it coming in, immediately

    about, again, human behavior, sociology, under pressure in a work

    environment. It models what business is all about. You very quickly learn that

    you don’t have to bring all the skills to the table. You learn that you want

    diversity around the table of ideas. You learn that you’ve got to deliver. You

    have people depending on you to get it done. And through trial and error you

    have fit issues that work well and fit issues that just like, hey, I just can’t work

    with that person very well, which is a fantastic repeated pattern for two years

    that sets you up.


    Geraci: It’s simulated real life.


    Johnston: It’s simulated real life in business, and particularly in the marketing business

    where you’re constantly working in teams and working through others or with

    others. And I found that my retailing experience was pretty good. I could raise

    my hand and speak with some authority about what I’d been doing. One of the

    other professors there, who was probably the toughest professor in the school,

    in marketing, taught a class in channels of distribution, which in effect was

    retail environment. He and I hit it off pretty well because I came out of


    I got through the first quarter. I remember going to the O’Hare airport and

    meeting up with some classmates, we’re all going home, it’s my first time

    home, and thinking I got through it. My grades were okay. Certainly okay

    enough. I struggled a little bit in accounting. That won’t surprise anybody.

    Struggled a bit in statistics but on the other hand, the strategy classes and the

  • 24

    advertising class and those were falling into. Those seemed to be in my

    wheelhouse, so to speak. But more importantly, in December I said, “I’m

    going to make it through this.”

    And so I came back in January that first year and really ramped up and just

    had a great experience overall, leading into the summer where everybody gets

    paranoid about internships even then. Today it’s worse. You have to land a

    summer job. So I’m thinking I want to go into brand management, I think. I

    look at this field and I say, “These are big diversified consumer products

    companies.” You work in teams and the promise is that you’ll be the center of

    the hub of the wheel. You’ll be the brand manager and packaging and

    advertising. You’re work on all the slices of the pie. I have fun with that

    today. I’m actually going to give a speech to alumni of Kellogg in a chief

    marketing officers series in a few weeks and I’ve titled it, Who Told You You

    were Going to be the Hub of the Wheel, because I think later you learn that

    that metaphor is semi-accurate. But it looked really fun. Although the

    companies, none of them were in the West Coast. Clorox was out here but the

    big ones—I want to go to the big one. I want to get in post-graduate work at

    one of the prime marketing houses. So once again, regardless of what

    paranoia, I was going to set the goal of that’s where I wanted to go, even

    though it meant I’m not coming home probably.

    But in the summer, General Mills, as an example, which will hire ten Kellogg

    graduates into their class at the end of two years, is going to have one

    internship. So then I go, “I got to have that internship,” because if you get that

    internship, and if you do well, you get a job offer right then and then you’re

    set for your second year because you start from—so all of this starts to build

    up. Well, the reality is I didn’t get that. I wanted to get it and I interviewed

    hard for it and I did reasonably well in the interview. But no, I didn’t get that

    one job.

    But it turns out retailing companies were very interested in me, not

    surprisingly, because now I have three years in retailing. And a grocery store

    chain in Chicago named Jewel were hiring lots of MBAs, had good

    connections with the university, and they had some internships. And I did get

    that. So that meant I was staying in Chicago for the summer, which ended up

    being a blast because to go through the winter you need to celebrate in the

    summer. I realized that this is fantastic. This is just another layer of learning.

    I’m going to work at a retailer in food. If I want to go into brand management,

    that’s their customer. So that experience is going to be valuable. But in and of

    itself it was pretty interesting.

    I had a fantastic summer experience. Of course, I have just been really lucky

    with some of the bosses, many of the bosses that I’ve had. So I was paired

    with this guy who had gone to the night program at Northwestern. He was an

    up and coming razor sharp guy in the merchandising group and he had this

    project for me to work on. And the project dealt with inventory in the stores

  • 25

    and it meant I was going to be out in the stores three days a week and in the

    office two days a week. So out in the stores meant I have one of my great

    moments of, again, being thrown into some difficult situations because of that.

    Because you came out from the corporate office and I remember walking in. I

    was going to go into one of this guy’s stores. They had these sort of

    lieutenants who managed groups of stores and they were all real tough

    merchants in the food business. They’re constantly having vendors coming

    into stores.

    But I remember meeting with this guy and going out to meet him and I wore a

    long sleeve shirt. Went out and had my meeting and he looks at me and he

    goes, “Let me just tell you, you don’t wear long sleeve shirts when you’re out

    in the stores. We all wear short sleeve shirts.” Because that was the policy in

    the grocery. It’s white, short sleeved shirts. This is late seventies in the

    grocery business. This guy was tough. His name is Phil Brice. Somehow in

    that conversation—it started really ugly—we found a common place and I

    found I could kind of tame him. He ended up being a real good pal. I liked

    those guys, those sort of salty, tough guys who maybe have seen a hundred of

    you come along and you try to figure out how to work with them.

    So I had those experiences out in the stores. It got me all around Chicago,

    which was cool, because I had to go to stores everywhere in the tough—


    Geraci: So you learned the city?


    Johnston: Tough parts of the south side and some of the north side. I could see the

    segmentation that was going on. I could see the differences in the business.

    But mainly I’d come back and have my mentor guy working with me. And

    this all would lead up to a presentation to the senior management. And, of

    course, they’re looking for people to come into their training program, so

    you’re going to meetings, you’re meeting the executives and you do have a

    meeting with the president of the company. So I had a meeting with the then

    president of Jewel. I remember getting ready for that. I guess somewhere

    along the line I learned how to ask decent questions. I had a lunch meeting

    with him and I asked him what the difference was between a great manager

    and a great leader. I guess I just hit a zone of a subject matter that he had been

    thinking a lot about. He pulled out a book that he had been reading on the

    subject. He said, “That’s a fantastic question,” and he went in to a twenty

    minute answer. And then I came back down to cubicle and then the next day

    that books shows up signed by the president of the company with, “I just

    really enjoyed the conversation,” blah, blah, blah. The secretary of the

    department goes, “Boy, it’s not every day people get books from the president

    around here.” So it was a fantastic experience and the guy I’m working with,

    Greg Josefowicz later in life becomes the head of Jewel. So the joke at

    Dreyer’s for many years was that I was connected with one grocer, who

  • 26

    happened to be a key customer, and there happens to be an interesting story

    about what happened in Chicago where I called on that relationship. But I was

    very fortunate. Greg went on. He was an extremely bright guy. But I was a



    Geraci: Do you remember what the book was?


    Johnston: —working with him. No. It wasn’t one of the standard leadership books. It

    wasn’t like a Bennis or one of those. I don’t remember the title of it now.

    Actually, I should have it somewhere.

    So a good summer experience and at the end of that summer Jewel gave me a

    job offer, and a very good one. So I ended up kind of walking back into the

    second year of business school with an offer, which was a very calming thing.

    I wasn’t sure I was going to take it because I wasn’t sure that was the program

    that I wanted to go through. But what it did is it said, “You ought to interview

    also maybe back in the retailing business and not just reject it out of hand

    based on your prior experience.”

    So the second year is almost all about you get to take a lot of classes in your

    major, but you’re also heavily involved in recruiting. And I interviewed

    broadly in brand management, which was still my major orientation, with

    General Mills as my top three [places] where I wanted to go. They were

    diversified as a company. They were informal. I remember that. Proctor &

    Gamble was still very formal. General Mills, you called everybody by their

    first name and you took your coats off in the meetings. Those cues said it’s a

    more informal environment, even though it’s still a big formal company. I

    interviewed in retailing. Short circuited. I got involved in a bunch of stuff, too,

    at school, case competitions, and worked on a case project, a case competition

    for General Motors in marketing. We got to meet all the chairmen of General

    Motors and go up to the executive dining room in Detroit, pitch our

    advertising ideas. So a lot of fun and very stimulating. I ended up with offers

    in retailing from Jewel, from Target stores up in Minneapolis, from Levi

    Strauss back out here in San Francisco and then in brand management quite a

    few: Frito Lay, McNeil Consumer Products, which is the Tylenol part of

    Johnson & Johnson. I had a fantastic recruiting experience with them in that

    the vice president or chairman of McNeil at that time, named Ralph Larsen,

    just liked me. When I told him I wasn’t going to join them, flew out

    personally to take Melanie and I out to dinner at the top of the Hancock

    Building in Chicago to try to change my mind. Ralph Larsen went on to be the

    CEO of Johnson & Johnson. And he was a really quality guy. So fun contacts

    along the way. There’s a couple others in there I’m forgetting, but I had an

    offer from General Mills.

  • 27

    An important part of the story. I met my wife, Melanie, I met her at the end of

    my first year of business school. She was in the graduate program of

    journalism at Northwestern. So we started to date at the end of the summer,

    middle of summer, and then throughout my second year. So then my

    recruiting view suddenly needed to change from one career to two and that

    was a real hot topic at that time, of dual careers and how does one manage—


    Geraci: How do you manage those?


    Johnston: Yeah. There were people at companies that we knew that were living in

    different cities, because that was kind of popular at the time to try to solve it

    that way. There were many couples being formed in business school who

    suddenly had that in the mix, and I did, as well. She is just starting a career,

    getting into the copy-writing—wanting to get into the copy-writing side of

    advertising and Chicago is a beautiful place for that. And I’m sort of saying,

    “General Mills is my top opportunity and it’s really where I want to go,” in


    So I had several offers. I had six or seven offers, which is obviously a

    fantastic place to be, and to be able to evaluate all of that. And what became

    most difficult was the dual career. What do I do? So I did interview in

    Chicago, not only with Jewel but I also interviewed in advertising and I had

    an offer from Needham, Harper & Steers in advertising, which went on to be

    today DDB Needham and Omnicom is now the company. But I did it initially

    because I did like advertising. I wasn’t sure that’s where I wanted to go. I

    wanted a bigger part of the pie. I wanted to be the hub of the big wheel, not

    just a slice of the pie. But I also thought I needed a Chicago option. As we got

    into the decisionmaking, and I remember at General Mills I got that offer and

    I was just elated, but it became much more difficult to weigh that and to think

    about going to Minneapolis because the advertising business there was way

    underdeveloped and it wasn’t going to be a place Melanie was necessarily

    happy about going.

    So put that all into the mix and go through it. I made a decision and the

    decision was to stay in Chicago and go to advertising. I made that decision

    and immediately obviously had all of the buyer’s remorse on that, which

    Melanie, of course, was with me all the steps of the way on that decision.

    While she was momentarily happy about that, she could see the

    disappointment. I remember General Mills just being somewhat shocked

    because I for so long cultivated them.


    Geraci: This had been your goal for so long.

  • 28


    Johnston: Yeah, yeah. So the only time in my career that ever happened but it did

    happen and Melanie basically, within a matter of a couple of weeks, said,

    “You’re miserable with this thing,” and she offered to call the guy at General

    Mills who was one of the division managers who is the key recruiting guy and

    say I was miserable with this decision and if he changed his mind would that

    still be there? And they said, “Yes.” Interestingly, the agency, Needham, that I

    had chosen to join, who was shocked when I said yes, was a General Mills

    agency. So that got a little interesting. But I called them back up and I said I

    changed my mind. The reality is they were disappointed. They sort of shared

    that they were surprised that I made the call initially and they were very

    gracious about it, partially because they had to be because I was now going to

    go become a client of theirs in Minneapolis. So it was tough, for all of the

    planning and all of the thinking about it. Obviously things come into the mix

    that are very different and change the priorities.

    So we rewired it and I said yes to General Mills. It all happened probably

    within two or three weeks but it was certainly frowned upon, obviously, by