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A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A

Bryan offers insight on business, art, giving back

In 25 years at the helm, native Mississippian John H. Bryan guided Chicago-based Sara Lee Corporation into a global manufacturer and marketer of high-quality, brand-name products for consumers throughout the world, with three lines of business: food and beverage, branded apparel and household products. With operations in 55 countries, Sara Lee markets branded products in nearly 200 nations and has 145,800 employees nationwide.

The Mississippi Business Journal chatted with Bryan, this year`s MEC annual meeting keynote speaker, to learn some secrets of his success.

Mississippi Business Journal: You’re a Mississippi boy. How did you land in Chicago?

John H. Bryan: In 1968, I sold a family business that my father had founded in 1936 – Bryan Packing Company, now Bryan Foods – to a Chicago firm then known as Consolidated Foods. I ran the family business until 1974, when I was invited to Chicago with the corporate parent. On April 1, 30 years ago, I reported for work in Chicago, moved my family up subsequently, and within 10 months I was the chief executive officer of Consolidated Foods, now the Sara Lee Corporation. I resigned from that position in 2000, so I spent a little over 25 years as the chief officer. I stayed on one year as chairman only, and left the board of directors. So it`s been almost three years since I’ve been an employee of Sara Lee.

MBJ: Did you have a particular “a-ha” moment in your personal life or career?

JHB: No, not really. I was invited to transfer to the Chicago office in 1973, when I was about 36 years ago, to be the chief financial officer of Consolidated Foods. I turned down the offer because it was a bit upsetting to the family, the thought of moving to Chicago. So I very promptly said no, I think not. And then about four or five months later, they invited me to become the chief operating officer. That was in January 1974. By that time, I’d sorta been able to think through the whole idea of moving from where my family had lived for five generations to far off, being the first one to leave. And so I rather promptly said yes. I recall my mother saying, ‘why in the world would you want to do that? That`s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of,’ while my father said, ‘you’re a fool not to go. You ought to go.’ But they didn`t decide. I decided, and it was all about having had those few months to contemplate something I’d never really contemplated, which was moving away. It turned out to be a major decision, and an important one for me.

MBJ: When you took over as CEO in 1975, net sales of the company were $2.4 billion. By 1998, net sales reached $20 billion. What were key strategies for this growth?

JHB: It was actually a lot of things. Essentially in the early years, the strategies were more about improving the performance and changing the portfolio of businesses. The company was not performing to a particularly high level, and there was the notion that you wanted to grow from a base of high performance, not a base of low performance. So we focused the first five years on increasing returns, and got our after-tax return on equity from 12% to 18%. We sold a lot of companies and bought a few major ones: the Hanes Corporation, a large coffee company in Europe and an Australian company. So a key strategy was the conversion of a portfolio to include a smaller number of categories of products around which we could center leadership positions in the marketplace. Rather than being a collection of lots of tiny businesses, we could be a collection of a more limited number of businesses that had big market leadership positions in consumer-packaged goods.

Then about the mid-1980s, with our high returns, we started concentrating on growth and investing heavily in growing our market positions around these categories of businesses we had chosen. And we had quite a lot of success with mostly old-fashioned investing in growth. Those were pretty good times. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the world opened up to do business, so we internationalized the company. We already had a strong base in Europe, but somehow being an American-European company wasn`t all that international. We began focusing on Asia and other markets. That was the beginning of globalization as we knew it, and we were well positioned for it. We got a lot of growth out of moving into new markets.

Then in the late 1990s, we began preparing for the transition of the company and I retired in 2000.

MBJ: What was your greatest challenge growing Sara Lee, and how did you overcome it?

JHB: The challenge in the broadest sense for most companies is figuring out how to sustain growth in an increasingly competitive, changing environment. You mostly get people to have an attitude that welcomes change, to go into new directions, new products, new markets and new strategies, because particularly today, in an unregulated environment with worldwide competitors, nothing lasts for very long. And if you’re going to have success over a 25-year period, you’d better be willing to change quite a lot. And so we always were willing to make changes. I inflicted a lot of those changes over the years. I think that`s always a big challenge for businesses. They tend to get very satisfied with a moment of success, and that`s usually when they’re in trouble.

MBJ: In 1998, Sara Lee made the first announcement of a planned donation of an art collection called a “Millennium Gift.” Coincidentally, you are a well-respected and benevolent arts patron. Why has art been so important to you?

JHB: I suppose part of it is instinctive. Part of it is experience. I’ve always been instinctively interested in the artistic part of life, whether it`s architecture, the landscape or paintings. A museum either captures you or it doesn`t. Some people don`t have eyes that see, and others have eyes that go crazy looking. I fall to the latter. Growing up, I didn`t have much association with the fine arts. There weren`t a lot of galleries or museums around for me to wander to. So I didn`t start out being taken to museums at a young age like a lot of folks who grew up in New York City or Chicago might have. But I took to it very fast.

I commenced collecting art while traveling, and the founder of Sara Lee was an important influence because he was an avid collector of early modern French paintings, and I got exposure from being close to him for about 10 years. I became a spokesperson for businesses associated with the arts, and for several years, I chaired a major national organization called Business Committee for the Arts, founded by David Rockefeller in about 1965. I spoke about art, and then I commenced putting together a corporate art collection. Many major corporations have also done that over the years.

With my luck, the corporate art collection that I bought in the late 1980s and early 1990s became terribly valuable. By 1998, it was worth about six or eight times what I paid for it, probably too valuable to sit on the walls of a corporation, so I had the thought that we might give it to museums around the world. Sara Lee gave 52 pieces of reasonably major art to 40 museums around the world – 12 pieces to The Art Institute of Chicago and 40 pieces to 25 museums in the U.S. and 15 museums outside the U.S. We called it the “Millennium Gift,” because the gift was actually concluded in 2000. Some people thought it had something to do with my retirement in 2000, and perhaps it did, but it was my judgment that while I appreciated the art and put together the collection, it was too valuable to stay around the corporation, and it wasn`t so likely that future generations would have an interest in it. I figured out a tax-efficient way to get it done, and Sara Lee got a lot of publicity – on the front page of The New York Times and in 40 locations around the world.

MBJ: You have been an ideal corporate role model for “doing well by also doing good,” as Mississippi Economic Council president Blake Wilson has described you. What has inspired your philanthropic interests, and what place should philanthropy have in business?

JHB: I’ve always said that societ
y
is divided into three parts: the private sector, the not-for-profit sector, where so much activity goes – hospitals, museums, schools and so forth – and the government sector. The truth is, there`s a place for all three of them and they need to work together. It never occurred to me that I had to shuffle off in one corner of it and do nothing but try to see how much money I could make. Society works a lot better if these three parts work together. At Sara Lee, I developed a lot of involvement in the community. We’ve made it obligatory. Successful executives were measured in part on their contributions to and involvement with the community. Then we shared resources. We consistently gave 5% of our pre-tax income to not-for-profits through my time. Essentially, careful giving of money to not-for-profits and being involved with them is good for employee relations, customer relations and public relations and all kinds of things.

I often rationalized the basis for our involvement in not-for-profits, believed in it, and in a sense, got away with it. I didn`t get criticized for it over the years. I’ve always recognized it was a privilege based on having a good record of serving the shareholders and having a good performance. And that we certainly did. We never had a down quarter, and probably have something on the order of 14% compounded annual return to the shareholder, growth in the share price, earnings and dividends for 25 years, so we could get away with it. It`s hard to be on the threshold of bankruptcy and brag about giving away money. Also, it was an era. Businesses have become a great deal more laissez-faire. There`s a lot more deregulation, and a lot more shareholder pressure to maximize returns. There are people who disagree with my philosophy: Warren Buffett and Milton Freidman and a number of people who don`t believe in doing that sort of thing. They believe you should keep your nose to the grindstone and maximize earnings and the world will be well served.

I’ve often said I didn`t come into this world to be made a mechanical robot who`s got to do nothing but see how much money I could make for me and my buddies. If that`s the case, get somebody else.

MBJ: What are you doing post-retirement?

JHB: Today, I have three parts to my life. The largest part is civic work, and I spend much more time on that than anything else. The second part is corporate governance, by serving on the boards of various corporations. And a third part basically revolves around my personal life – family, the art world, collecting art.

MBJ: What do you do for fun and relaxation?

JHB: Most everything I do is fun. That`s the luckiest thing of all. I’ve been fortunate and careful enough not to take on things I didn`t like doing. I can have a lot of fun in business and civic work, but I suppose in the normal definition of fun, it`s living on a farm north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. I enjoy hanging around the farm and puttering around the office and collecting art. I have 13 grandchildren, and they spend a lot of time here. I’ve been playing golf all my life, and I do that occasionally now. I still travel to interesting places with my family. I’ve always had a big, close family with a lot of activity. I’m in and out of 50 museums every year. But I also enjoy performing arts, especially in a place like Chicago. Last week, I went to the ballet and a couple of weeks before, the opera. Life is short and there`s a lot to do.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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