Trustee Profile: Loyal Teammate

"Speed is life" defines Bob Ulrich and his 40 years at Target

Bob Ulrich’s office on one of the top floors of Target’s corporate headquarters in downtown Minneapolis looks like the office of any chief executive officer, with one exception.

A large bank of windows provides far-reaching vistas to the south and east. The décor is reserved but tasteful, and furnishings include a desk, a conference table and several pieces of art.

The exception? Dogs. Bull terriers, to be exact – the ones you see in Target advertising. Two dozen of these cloth creatures are bunched together on a table near Ulrich’s desk, almost as if they are keeping an eye on their boss. He cheerfully explains that each one is distinctive and represents a different segment of Target – everything from business operations in India and Shanghai to asset protection and construction practices in Minnesota.

“And this one,” Ulrich said, holding up a dog, “is our team member, in khaki and red.”

It may have been the 20th time that Ulrich has used the word “team” during an hourlong interview, but that comes as no surprise. Ask Ulrich about his 40-year career at Target and its predecessor Dayton Hudson and he always talks first about the Target team.

The same goes for other questions about his accomplishments and successes, including the prestigious CEO of the Year Award that he received last summer from Chief Executive magazine. As proud as he is, his associates say he always makes it clear that it isn’t his award.

“It’s a reflection on our team,” he said. “We have a winning team here at Target.”

Ulrich laughs and recalls how years ago, when he and other executives would visit Target stores, there would be whispers of, “Here come the suits.”

“So we switched to khaki and red,” he said. “There was a subtle thing about it. People came to know that you were part of the team. We’re all part of the team. We’re all important.”

“It’s not a theory,” Michael Francis, executive vice president for marketing and, replied when asked about the team concept. “It’s not the management guru idea of the week. It’s the real thing. Bob believes it, and it’s a fundamental element in the way we operate.”

Ulrich got his start on the team in June 1967 after graduating with a speech and journalism degree from the University of Minnesota. He began as a merchandising trainee, spending time on the sales floor and as a buyer, and he loved the challenge.

“It was the ability to be entrepreneurial – to work with advertising, sales, business analysis,” he said. “You would get early, quick feedback through sales results. You knew if you were doing a good job. It was stimulating.”

Ulrich’s bosses certainly knew he was doing a good job, and he advanced rapidly. He was vice president and general merchandise manager at Dayton’s within 10 years and became president in 1984. Three years later, he became chairman and chief executive officer of the Target division. He got the top job in 1994 at Dayton Hudson Corp., which later was renamed Target Corp.

Under Ulrich, Target has grown to become the nation’s No. 2 discount retailer behind Wal-Mart. The numbers are startling compared to 1987: 1,591 stores in 47 states (vs. 317 in 24 states), 352,000 employees (vs. 126,000 for all of Dayton Hudson) and $60 billion in revenue (vs. $5 billion for Target Stores). Ulrich believes there is capacity to double the number of U.S. stores.

The growth and changes have been necessary for Target to remain healthy and competitive, Ulrich says, although he admits, “Any time you have change, people get nervous inside and outside the organization. We make sure we have a consistent merchandising direction and we try to please the guests.”

Guests? It’s another word for “customers,” but you won’t hear Ulrich say the latter. He considers the people who walk into Target to be guests. “They make everything possible,” he said. “Our reward is taking care of them – providing good merchandise and clean stores, with no waiting and good return policies.”

Ulrich lists guests and – of course – team members as critical factors in Target’s success. A third is loyal shareholders, who have earned 20 percent annualized returns – $100 in Dayton Hudson stock in late 1987 would be worth $3,400 in Target stock today, after reinvested dividends. A fourth is the community: Target gives away 5 percent of income in grants, primarily in the arts, education and social action. That amounts to $3 million a week.

“We give to the community,” he said, stopping for a moment to emphasize that “we don’t give back to the community. It’s not like we have to do it, but it is part of who we are. We hope we can improve society and inspire others to do the same.”

Retail observers credit Target’s masterful marketing and branding for setting it apart from competitors. The red Target bull’s-eye logo is everywhere, the focus of catchy advertising and those adorable bull terriers. So are the slogans: “Expect more, pay less,” “fast, fun and friendly” and “speed is life,” which perhaps best defines Ulrich’s corporate philosophy.

“It’s recognition that if you don’t move fast and make good decisions, you’re in trouble,” he said, slapping his hands on a table. “You can’t be complacent (slap). You can’t get bogged down (slap). You have to use your ability to innovate (slap). If that doesn’t happen, you will lose market share.”

And market share is critical at Target, given the competition. Ulrich respects Wal-Mart – he would be foolish not to, considering that it has four times more revenue – but he points proudly to a Target “guest profile” that includes higher family income, more education and younger families. It also helps to work in an environment where people want to do their best.

“Bob consistently is able to motivate people to perform above what they think they can do,” said Gail Dorn, who has worked with Ulrich since graduating from St. Thomas in 1984. “People respect him. He’s honest, he’s forthright and he always knows where he is going.”

John Pellegrene, who worked with Ulrich for three decades before retiring as executive vice president of marketing, said his ex-boss’ greatest strength is his ability “to surround himself with people who complement what he is best at. He knows he can’t be an expert in every field, so he finds people to help him get where he wants to go.”

Ulrich learns from those people, too, especially when he steps into a Target store, unannounced and wearing the traditional khaki and red, to check things out.

“Once I’m there, I’ll find out if the store team leader is around,” he said. “I’ll walk through the backroom, talk to employees and find out what’s on their minds. It’s so important to keep in touch, and it’s absolutely vital to be where our guests are and where our team members are so they know we’re not living in an ivory tower.”

Ulrich will retire as chief executive officer on May 1, and will remain as chairman until Jan. 31, 2009. He then will pursue other interests, but Target employees won't be surprised if they still see him wandering around their stores wearing the trademark khaki and red.

Boss or not, he’ll always be part of the team.

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