Can Target see the bullseye on its back?

Target was once a strong retailer. Now the cracks in its foundation threaten to topple the company.

by Martha Pietruszewski

Across the United States, a handful of cities have become famous for a special kind of service that only they can offer. For example, San Francisco is known for housing tech giants and the startup culture. New York City has its banking. But Minneapolis? It’s a retail hub. 
Target is one of the main retail companies headquartered in Minneapolis. You hopefully know of Target because it’s everywhere in Minnesota and not because it’s been all over the news recently as a result of its struggles in Canada and its layoffs of new hires. 
More change is coming for the company — this time in the form of its human resources staff. Jodee Kozlak, who has been Target’s human resources chief for the past nine years, is moving to Alibaba, the Chinese online retailer which made history in 2014 when its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange was the highest ever recorded. 
I think this personnel change weakens Target’s position as a strong Minnesota business. While an employee moving between companies is not out of the ordinary, the shakeup Kozlak’s departure could cause is bigger than we might expect. 
Alibaba is a fast-growing company on the verge of a retail revolution, and Kozlak’s decision to leave Target in favor of a major global retailer shows the cracks in the Minnesota company’s foundation. Not only was Kozlak a high-ranking professional within Target, but she also helped to cultivate its reputation as a Minneapolis business by actively involving herself in the Carlson School of Management and the Guthrie Theater.  
In Minnesota, prominent community members and their word can go a long way to win over the public. That’s why Kozlak’s departure represents a substantial loss for the Minnesota community — it will be hard for Target to replace someone who has the knowledge and influence that she does.
Her move also shows that Target needs to take its competitors seriously. Alibaba is an international retailer, and analysts consider it to be a highly valuable investment. 
Kozlak will prove very valuable to Alibaba as it moves forward. I think Target, meanwhile, will remain in the awkward position of being a large enough company to lose leaders to prominent competitors but not so powerful a company as to return the favor by taking away its competitors’ leaders.
Finally, Kolzak’s departure shows that Alibaba is willing to take bold moves. As its ill-fated expansion into Canada shows, Target is no stranger to boldness, but its schemes seem to have bad luck.
We can attribute this luck to a strategy problem. I think Target is trying to be a company that it’s not. Right now, the retailer needs to focus on its core strengths, such as customer service and quality product offerings. It cannot try to be Alibaba — it just doesn’t have the flexibility and agility to do so.
A small change in staff can make a big ripple in the future of the company. Target needs to focus on retaining leaders and developing new talent to match its competitors before it’s too late. 
Martha Pietruszewski welcomes comments at [email protected].