A conversation with Jeff Muench, Chief Strategy Officer
This week we sat down with the latest addition to the Ledgestone team, Jeff Muench. Jeff joins us as our Chief Strategy Officer and will be instrumental in our vision of driving cultural change for organizations across the country and the world. We chatted about how his experience led him to this moment, how to stay innovative, why mission matters, and more:
Talk to me a little bit about how you reached this point in your career and ended up joining the Ledgestone family.
Currently, I serve as a strategic advisor for a few small companies. For instance, one is a facial analysis, AI company. Another company uses blockchain to track livestock, primarily in Africa. I really enjoy the start-up challenge of building from a blank canvas while also helping change the world by leveraging technology.
We live in a really unique time given we are at the dawn of the fifth industrial revolution, when several technologies (AI, ML, AV, Blockchain, 5G, etc.) are converging at the same moment. Any one of these has the capability to radically transform life and society as we know it, but they’re all coming together at the same time for an even greater impact. It’s going to dramatically create massive opportunities for those looking to harness their power.
Also, I spent nine years with Walmart. My last role was leading M&A integration. Essentially, I would facilitate the marriage of two companies helping them figure out how to work together — blending cultures, systems, and processes while capturing value. The tricky work of blending cultures was especially important to minimize high-value turnover. It was fascinating.
Prior to M&A, I led strategy and execution for Supercenter Reinvention — reinventing Walmart’s number one asset that delivers the vast majority of their operating profit to increase customer relevance so we did not become Sears. There were two primary objectives: improve user experience by reducing friction in the customer journey and combining the silos of Walmart Stores and Walmart.com in an omni channel way that brought value to each and improved customer’s experience across them. Both objectives were enabled by emerging technology. The project was the catalyst that changed Wall Street’s perspective on Walmart from lumbering old dinosaur to the omni-channel retail leader in a way that even Amazon could not follow given it does not match Walmart’s store footprint.
My preceding assignment was leading marketing for the $78 billion consumables and health & wellness businesses including areas like pet, baby, beauty, personal care, household paper & chemicals, pharmacy, optical centers, OTC’s, dietary supplements, and clinics. Again, I wanted to dramatically improve the traditional approach to marketing. I’m a firm believer in rooting out inefficiencies and focusing on shared wins.
At the time, Walmart employed coop marketing where vendors funded a pooled marketing budget to drive their products and categories that my team managed. As a former Brand Manager who never liked coop marketing and saw it as a tax with no material benefit, I refused to continue the process as it had been run before. Instead, I partnered with my vendors to co-create programs that were a triple win — win for customers, vendors, and Walmart. We drove $2.2B in topline that year and were so successful, that the next year I grew my budget 61% as vendors took dollars away from my competitors to fund our successful programs. We could have grown our budget even more, but I actually turned down budget for fear it would water-down the successful programs.
I started at Walmart in local marketing where I created and led what my CMO at the time called “the most impactful advertising campaign in the history of Walmart and perhaps in the history of retail.” The campaign centered around taking local moms shopping at a local competitor, bringing her back to Walmart, rescanning her groceries, and demonstrating how much money they just wasted by shopping elsewhere. It was based on the customer insight that they were confused whether they were still getting the best deals at Walmart or not given all the competitive gimmicks and tactics that had muddied the water.
The campaign was revolutionary on a couple of levels — and I don’t use that word lightly. First, my attorneys desperately didn’t want the campaign seeing litigation threats everywhere. They kept putting up barriers and I kept persevering to overcome them collaboratively until finally they relented telling me I could have the campaign. However, they mentioned that we would have to conform to a higher standard than the regulations governing comparative advertising. In particular, the regulations stipulated that comparisons must be “current.” Since current was undefined, my attorneys chose to define it as one week. So, we had to shop, film, edit, get approvals, traffic to stations, air and have it down within seven days. They thought they had given us an insurmountable challenge thereby killing the campaign, but we figured out how to do what had never been done before at scale. In fact, we filmed over 1400 ads that first year.
Second, the campaign was revolutionary because we figured out how to produce each ad at a savings for $23K instead of the typical $350K+ or a -93% savings. This was critical since each ad was only good for one metropolitan area and had a one-week shelf life. We would have never been able to afford the campaign under normal circumstances.
Ultimately, the campaign drove over $3 billion in topline the first year, enabled Walmart to pay bonus, and won an Effie Award. The Effie award is the only advertising industry award that really matters to me because it rewards marketing effectiveness and ROI.
What I am gathering is that your history with Walmart was marked by strategic innovation across several divisions, did you have experience with marketing and strategy prior to Walmart?
Prior to Walmart, I did 12 years of brand management marketing with Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, and Conagra. I worked on well-known household brands including large and small brands, old and new brands, innovation and renovation, turnarounds, portfolios and channels marketing. I was essentially each brand’s CEO creating and executing brand, product, and overall business strategy while owning top and bottom-line P&L accountability. It was my job to marshal my cross-functional team and agencies to achieve our objectives.
What I enjoyed most was taking over brands that weren’t performing, nobody wanted to work on, and were under-funded. I loved figuring out how to turn them around and get them back to growth using guerrilla tactics. They became brands everybody wanted to work on because they were growing, profitable, and executing the most interesting marketing.
Were there other early career roles and where do you go to school?
I earned my MBA at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flager Business School, graduated with a bachelors in political science from the University of The South — “Sewanee,” and attended ICHEC in Brussels for graduate studies in intercultural management on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. The master’s program included an internship in consumer marketing for Belgium’s largest mobile phone provider.
Before business school, I worked in legislative and campaign politics including working for a US Senator on Capitol Hill. At the ripe age of 24, I managed mayor’s race in Charlotte, North Carolina. Looking back, there is nothing scrappier and more entrepreneurial than a local political race where I paid my volunteers in pizza. Politics, especially campaign politics, is still marketing except your products are people and ideas.
Finally, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Central Africa teaching farming and gardening techniques right out of college. Even that role had elements of strategy, marketing, and sales because you had to persuade villagers to try new techniques. For them, the risks were high. If they tried your techniques that they believed were unproven and they didn’t work, their families might go hungry that year.
After all those years of experience and working in different countries and corporations, what brings you here, to Ledgestone?
Throughout my career, mission has always been very important to me. I believe it is very critical to do good while doing well. Also, I have always had a passion for building strong company cultures to bring out the best in people especially after seeing aspects of culture that worked and did not work during my career.
When I first met Austin and started hearing about what Ledgestone was doing to improve culture at its clients, the fit just felt right. In fact, I had just written several articles about the importance of culture and how to develop an engaging culture. Both of us realized quickly that this could be an outstanding fit.
Additionally, I believe in the power of technology to change the world and specifically solve previously unsolvable problems including inefficiencies. With artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics; Ledgestone is leveraging and building on the relevant technologies of the day to accomplish its objectives.
So, it all came full circle. I believe Ledgestone will change the world. I want people to feel engaged, energized, meaningful, and like they are doing what they were put on earth to do. Specifically, if we can improve the quality of life at workplaces where people spend most of their waking hours, we can radically transform people’s lives and the lives they touch. That is Ledgestone and I want to be a part of making that happen.
Furthermore, I want to do that efficiently and effectively. Using insights from the data we collect,, leveraging machine learning and AI to refine it for insights, and bringing relevant new products to market excites me greatly. I always want to improve the world, and I think fulfilling Ledgestone’s mission is a way I can do that in a meaningful way.
It is really interesting, because some CEOs we have interacted with love to talk in numbers and about ROI and business outcomes, which are all fine, but then when it comes to their employees and their experience, they seem to care a lot less, some even saying “they should be grateful they have a job.” What would you say to those people.
Well first, don’t try to convince immovable people who are not open to the impact improving culture can have on their business. Ultimately, fantastic cultures will become the new baseline or business must have. Those who cannot or will not change will get left behind. They will either see the light as other companies and competitors do better or they will become irrelevant.
So, I don’t worry about trying to convince the people who don’t want to be convinced. We will focus on companies wanting to do better. Many already know they have cultural opportunities but they are just not sure how or where to start. That is where Ledgestone can enable them.
Also, there is so much opportunity in this space. We’re just barely scratching the surface. Given this, it is unproductive to pursue uninterested companies when there are so many companies desperate to create a healthy culture.
So, one kind of follow up question here: Over the course of the journey that you’ve taken throughout your career, one theme that stood out is innovation. How do you keep your focus on that?
Let’s start by defining terms. Innovation can be incremental which is necessary to all business or radical to transform everything. Both are important and I have and will continue to drive both.
First, I’m very customer centric — everything a company does should be focused on the customer. What are their unmet needs and pain-points? I want to understand every step of the customer journey to fully understand these friction points and opportunities. Then, we can figure out how to solve them leveraging new perspectives, technology, and/or processes focused on customer relevance and differentiation with competitors. That is where you see innovation that matters and how to win while having a lot of fun doing it.
Second, I take a broad view of internal and external stakeholders and focus on win-win solutions with them wherever I can. Whether developing a process to give time back to cross-functional partners, creating highly motivating and relevant advertising campaigns that make sure funders and consumers see a return, or challenging teams to accomplish things they did not think they could; in the end it is about ensuring all stakeholders see value in the process and the outcome.
As we go to market and try to begin transforming the culture of companies and the lives of employees, what excites you most? What are some challenges you foresee?
Well, I’m thrilled by the mission — that’s number one. And number two, I’m excited because the opportunity largely feels like a blank canvas and we get to create our culture and products from scratch without inheriting lots of historical constraints. Of course, that is going to be a lot of work and can initially seem daunting.
Honestly, the biggest challenge — managing the process of growth, is also the biggest opportunity because nothing is set in stone like with an established brand, product, company, process, etc. We get to create something awesome from scratch and refine it for relevance as we go. That’s a really exciting prospect.
100% agree. Excited to go build something that will change the world. Thanks for taking the time to sit down and share a little bit!