Embed Size (px)
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
THE DREYER’S GRAND ICE CREAM ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
Interviews conducted by
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
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]
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—
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
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.
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: 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
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
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.
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
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
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—
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
Geraci: You want your students to move to different places.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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