Inside the career of Brian Cornell, who ran Sam's Club before becoming Target's first-ever outsider CEO

Monica Schipper / Stringer / Getty ImagesAs a kid, Target CEO Brian Cornell had a job washing Tropicana trucks.
  • Target CEO Brian Cornell had decades of retail experience under his belt by the time he took the reins at the Minneapolis-based retailer.
  • In 2014, he became the first outside hire ever appointed as Target’s CEO.
  • Before that, the Queens native worked at companies like PepsiCo, Sam’s Club, and Michaels.

Target CEO Brian Cornell is unique among chief executives of the Minneapolis-based retailer.

In 2014, he became the first outside hire to take on the role as CEO of Target. Today, he leads Target’s 323,000 or so employees spread across about 1,800 US stores, according to the company’s website.

Read more: How Doug McMillon went from a high schooler working at Walmart for $US6.50 an hour to a millionaire CEO running one of the world’s most powerful companies

Long before he became a major retail executive, Cornell spent his youth working odd jobs and low-paying retail gigs in order to put himself through college. He then embarked on a decades-long career in the business, during which he held down roles at a number of prominent companies like Safeway, PepsiCo, and Walmart.

Here’s a look back at Cornell’s life and career:


Born in Queens in 1958, Brian Cornell was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents.

Andrew Burton / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: America’s Promise, Fortune


Fortune reported that Cornell’s mother suffered from chronic heart disease, and the family relied on disability checks to get by.

Andrew Burton / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: America’s Promise, Fortune


Cornell began working at an early age, taking on odd jobs throughout his childhood and teenage years.

Source: Fortune


To earn money for college, he began washing Tropicana trucks and other rigs at a distribution plant.

Source: Fortune


“I had to scramble and scratch for everything I have,” Cornell told Fortune.

Source: Fortune


Cornell told Fortune that an assortment of retail jobs and a stint coaching a high school football team allowed him to pay his way through UCLA.

Monica Schipper / Stringer / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell (far left).

Source: Fortune


He graduated from the school in 1981, but returned a decade later to attend the Anderson School of Management.

Ken Wolter/ShutterstockUCLA.

Source: The UCLA Anderson Blog


Today, he sits on the Anderson School of Management’s Board of Visitors.

Source: The UCLA Anderson Blog


After college, Cornell embarked on a career in retail that would propel him to the executive level of several major brands.

Stefanie Keenan / Contributor / Getty ImagesJessica Alba and Brian Cornell.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


Unlike some executives, who stick with a single company for decades, Cornell has made a number of big moves.

Neilson Barnard / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


In a call-back to his days washing trucks in Queens, he went to work for Tropicana. He remained there when PepsiCo bought the company in 1998.

Pool / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


Cornell ultimately took on a number of leadership roles, becoming the president of Tropicana and PepsiCo’s North American food services president.

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderCornell stayed on after PepsiCo bought Tropicana.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


In 2004, Cornell left PepsiCo to become CMO of the California-based grocery chain Safeway.

Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Target and CVS HealthBrian Cornell with CVS CEO Larry Merlo.

Source: Blackstone, Yum!Bloomberg


He was a major driver behind the company’s “Ingredients for Life” re-branding.

Aranami/FlickrA Safeway store.

Source: Blackstone, Yum!Bloomberg


In 2007, Cornell left Safeway to take the helm of Michaels Stores, the arts and crafts retailer.

AFP Contributor / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


Cornell got off to a rough start, and Michaels lost $US5 million during his first year there, The Minneapolis Business Journal reported. The CEO resigned a little more than a year after joining.

Business Insider/Jessica TylerMichaels.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal, Fortune


Up next, Cornell headed to Walmart, becoming CEO of Sam’s Club. The Wall Street Journal reported that Cornell accrued a reputation for attracting wealthier members to the warehouse club.

Noah K. Murray/AP Images for TargetBrian Cornell (far right right).

Source: Supermarket News, The Wall Street Journal


His predecessor at Sam’s Club? Doug McMillon, who now runs all of Walmart.

Source: Business Insider


After three years with Walmart, Cornell returned to PepsiCo and was once rumoured to be slated to potentially replace CEO Indra Nooyi.

Source: The Minneapolis Business Journal


Instead, in 2014, Cornell was brought on to lead Target. He was the first-ever company outsider to become CEO.

Source: Target


At the time, the retailer was reeling from a massive hack. CEO Gregg Steinhafel had resigned, largely as a result of the ensuing controversy. Cornell’s selection was widely seen as an effort to bring in an outsider’s perspective, according to Fortune.

Source: Fortune


“I have always looked at this company with admiration for the team, its capabilities and the strength of the brand — I’d say the connection Target has forged with its guests is enviable,” Cornell said in a 2014 interview with the retailer’s website.

Andrew Burton / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: Target


Cornell developed a reputation as a hands-on CEO, often visiting stores to chat with employees and customers. In 2016, he even embarked on a number of home visits with different shoppers.

Noah K. Murray/AP Images for TargetBrian Cornell with Target employees.

Source: Business Insider


Under Cornell, Target has doubled down on its digital capabilities. And this past holiday season, the company saw the fruits of this labour when comparable sales grew 5.7% in November and December.

Unique Nicole / Contributor / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell (far right).

Source: Business Insider, Target


In addition to working at Target’s CEO, Cornell serves as the non-executive chairman for Yum Brands’ board.

Stefanie Keenan / Contributor / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: Yum


Cornell also serves on the board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian.

Andrew Burton / Getty ImagesBrian Cornell.

Source: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Yum!


Cornell and his wife, Martha, have a son and a daughter. The CEO said that his daughter — a fan of Target — was particularly excited about him taking the job at the retailer in 2014.

Steve Granitz / Contributor / Getty ImagesBrian and Martha Cornell.

Source: Target


Bloomberg estimated that Cornell’s annual compensation comes out to about $US1.3 million.

Noah K. Murray/AP Images for TargetBrian Cornell.

Source: Bloomberg


When asked to discuss his passion in 2014, Cornell replied: “My passion is building loyalty and delighting consumers … something that Target does extremely well.”

Noah K. Murray/AP Images for TargetBrian Cornell with Target employees.

Source: Target

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