2013 IB Hall of Fame
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As IB presents the Hall of Fame class of 2013, we’d like to emphasize that business and philanthropic excellence are the hallmarks of a Hall of Fame inductee. These exceptional individuals were judged to have made significant contributions to their companies, the Greater Madison business community, their respective industries, and the community at large.
We even have one 2013 inductee, Corey Chambas, CEO of First Business Financial Services, who helped write the HOF criteria 10 years ago. In the 2013 class, Chambas is joined by Ellen Brothers, retired president of American Girl; Tim Christen, CEO of Baker Tilly Virchow Krause; Carol “Orange” Schroeder, co-owner of Orange Tree Imports; and Kevin Conroy, president and CEO of Exact Sciences Corp.
Special kudos go to the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, which consisted of the 2012 Hall of Fame class: James Bakke, president and CEO of Sub-Zero, Inc./Wolf Appliance; Dr. Frank Byrne, president of St. Mary’s Hospital; James Garner, CEO of Sergenian’s Floor Coverings; George Nelson, executive vice president of the Evening Telegram Co. (dba Morgan Murphy Media); and Toni Sikes, a general partner in Calumet Venture Fund who also founded The Guild and, more recently, the Art Commission.
Also inside these pages, we present an Executive Register of about 950 executives who are civically involved in some way, shape, or form. This is not a lifetime achievement recognition because some ER selections drop off the list or climb back on, depending on the level of involvement they indicate on their online professional profiles (ibmadison.com/pd). This year, we gave more weight to service on local boards and in local organizations, and we highlight the hobbies of several executives in vignettes throughout the listing.
Ellen Brothers: Celebrating Girlhood
“To be part of a brand and a business and a community of employees that has become one of the most revered companies in the United States, you just don’t get that opportunity very often. To do it in a community such as Madison, which is very philanthropic, is an honor.”
In her polite way, Ellen Brothers is quick to correct anyone who views American Girl simply as a “doll company.” Brothers, who retired as company president last year, doesn’t even use the word “company,” noting that she served a brand that celebrates girls and makes a difference in their lives.
Brothers attributes her Hall of Fame selection to quality associations with the likes of founder Pleasant Rowland, who in 1995 brought the self-described “catalogue gal” to what was then the Pleasant Company. The two got along famously and did a lot of heavy lifting together before the company was sold to Mattel, Inc. three years later.
Brothers also praised Robert Eckert, the retired CEO of Mattel, who understood that American Girl was distinct from its parent organization in terms of culture and customer orientation. He basically said vive la différence, because while Mattel’s biggest customers included Walmart and Target, American Girl’s products are marketed and distributed through its catalogue, website, and proprietary retail stores.
All of American Girl’s dolls have stories, many of them based on women’s contributions to history or contemporary things in girls’ lives, which is what Brothers most appreciates about the company’s business model. The business execution associated with that model, however, is not fun and games. “Everybody thinks toys are a fun category, but toys are a very tough category,” Brothers stated. “It’s one of innovation. It’s one of kids deciding they want something today, and by the time it comes to market, they’ve got new interests. It’s ever-changing and it’s highly competitive.”
For American Girl, innovation is key, thanks to a never-ending focus on core customers — young girls and their mothers — and a holistic look at service, experience, and making an emotional connection with that 8-year-old “bull’s-eye” girl. American Girl relies on a panel of such girls who come to the Middleton office, and others who visit its retail stores throughout the country, to serve as a focus group for product development, whether it’s heroine dolls, toys, books, American Girl magazine, clothes, or accessories.
To foster that innovation, Brothers was known for asking employees, “What does failure look like?” That way, the difficult conversation was had upfront, not at the back end. She’s also credited with creating an environment where ideas are respected and for rewarding innovation in the employee-review process, especially with the brand and customer experience in mind.
In terms of employee training, Brothers developed a mentor-mentee program for new employees, and top company leaders were involved. Brothers herself serves on the Committee of 200, a women’s organization that mentors college women. “A lot of times there is a fear factor for the mentee,” she explained. “We took some of those walls down and gave people insight into other areas of the business.”
In retirement, Brothers has endured knee surgery, which has delayed her long-awaited return to the tennis court, but she has more control over her travel schedule and can be selective about service on business boards like Hillshire Brands in Chicago. She can’t wait to ride horses and take long walks, to finally say “yes” to social invitations that sound interesting, and to start knocking the fuzz off a few tennis balls.
A word of warning to future opponents: Brothers has taken lessons from Madison legend John Powless, who not only is one of the finest tennis players in the world but is also “all about the mind game,” Brothers noted.