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Dunn’s Decade With Anderson: Toughest Boss, Warmest Heart

4/20/2009 02:01:00 AM Eastern

Brian Dunn’s first encounter with Brad Anderson was less than auspicious.

It was 1989, and Dunn, who succeeds Anderson this June as CEO of Best Buy, was managing his first store for the CE chain. Anderson was executive VP and a company director.

“It was the day I was closing on my first house,” Dunn recalled, “and in walks Brad. My warehouse was a mess, and Brad says, ‘Let’s walk through the warehouse.’”

Thoughts of his new home and impending mortgage raced through Dunn’s mind. “I started thinking of all the excuses I could give him,” he said, but decided instead to fess up to the disorder.

“I said, ‘It’s a mess, we’re working on cleaning it up, and it will get better.’”

It was the right answer.

“Brad said, ‘That’s great, I’m sure it will get better,’ but his look was priceless. It was a good lesson for a 29-year-old kid with his first store.”

It would also prove to be a good introduction to Anderson’s management style, which, forged on the Sound of Music sales floor, is focused on customers and staff.

“Brad has always been terrific about reaching into an organization and learning what makes people tick,” said Dunn, who rose to president and COO under Anderson’s tutelage. “He’s made a connection with all of us by investing time and energy in hearing what we think. People’s stories are critical to him.”

As is honesty. “He’s very interested in truth tellers,” Dunn continued. “He wants to hear the real thing.”

By the same token, Anderson would readily acknowledge when he didn’t have all the answers, and that frankness and devotion helped kindle Dunn’s dedication to the company.

“This place really matters to me,” he said. “My mom worked here for 18 years and brought me in because this is a company where ordinary people create extraordinary things. I saw my commitment to that — although the paradox is that there are no ordinary people.”

Dunn credits Anderson for creating an environment where employees have the opportunity to grow — and make mistakes. “The most important piece of advice he gave me is to give people room to learn their way through challenges when it’s so tempting to help them. Brad has the intellectual generosity to let people learn on their own,” he said, although there have also been “big moments,” like customer centricity, when Anderson has aggressively pushed his agenda.
“Brad sees the value of each individual and how special and important they all are,” Dunn noted. “Our results are the aggregation of a 100,000 interactions that customers have every day with our Blue Shirts, Geek Squad,” and other frontline employees.

Another of Anderson’s assets is his keen intellect. “Brad is brilliant,” Dunn observed. “There’s no such thing as a 10-minute meeting with him. I consider myself thorough, but Brad is way more thorough than I am. He will wrestle with everything to get to a better place. He’ll let you argue the other side of an issue for an hour even though he agrees with you, in order to get a complete perspective.”

That’s partly what Dunn was referring to earlier this year when, during a conference call announcing his succession, he thanked Anderson for his 10-year mentorship and jokingly described it as his best and worst experience. “Brad’s the toughest boss I ever had,” Dunn told TWICE, “but his principals and values are rock solid, and it was an absolute honor to be his president.”

To underscore the point, and illustrate Anderson’s overriding humanity, he shared a personal moment from a low point in 2001. Best Buy was struggling through a difficult period as was Dunn’s family, after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She has since made a full recovery.)

“I was executive VP of retail stores and a lot of the company’s challenges involved my area,” he said. “One day I ran into Brad in the parking lot and started giving him an update on our progress and he interrupted me. He said, ‘There’ll be lots of time to talk about business. How’s your wife?’

“Our stock had dropped eight points, and there was so much pressure on him as president, but he was only concerned about my wife. That moment galvanized for me who Brad is, and I’ll never forget it.”

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