Dave Brandon is moving on, and he's just fine with it.
The former athletic director of the University of Michigan, effectively ousted last fall amid a coaching controversy and pressure from the Board of Regents, next month becomes the chairman and CEO of Toys "R" Us Inc., the New Jersey-based retailer with $12.5 billion in annual revenue, 66,000 employees and 1,500 stores.
"This is a big challenge and a big opportunity," Brandon, 63, said in an interview Thursday. "The brand's been around a long time. It's a global brand. A lot of the dynamics of the company and the business remind me of some of the things I encountered when I arrived at Domino's.
"I'm highly motivated to do the kind of work I was doing when I left the business world. The things I considered were all CEO roles. I'm anxious and excited about getting back to work. There's a lot of work to be done and a lot of opportunities to pursue."
A fitting move, that. What better preparation could there be for running a kiddie emporium than spending five years in the middle of the Ann Arbor circus, a swirl of trustee politicking, fan resentment and a football team that had the audacity to fall short of mythical expectations?
If success is indeed the sweetest revenge, ol' Dave ain't doing badly. The company he'll be leading boasts an iconic brand, not unlike the Domino's Pizza Inc. he led as CEO before his AD stint and where he will remain non-executive chairman. Toys "R" Us operates in Asia, Europe and North America and maintains an enviable global distribution network, but it's beset with the same challenges all big-box retailers face in the Internet age: customers with choices.
Just ask the folks at Best Buy and Dick's Sporting Goods, Lowe's and Home Depot, Office Max and Staples. They're all specialty retailers in the mold of Toys "R" Us, each trying to remain relevant and desirable in an Amazon age where customers want what they want when, where and however they choose.
Owned equally by three private-equity firms, including Brandon's old pals at Bain Capital, Toys "R" Us is a prime candidate for an initial public offering of its stock. That's the kind of deal that would make Bain, its partners KKR & Co. LP and Vornado Realty Trust and, of course, key executives (including the new CEO) a buck or two once the shares move and the dust settles.
"Private equity firms buy companies to create value and at some point they want to realize that value," he said, confirming that the initial feeler about the Toys "R" Us job came from a Bain partner. "There are lots of ways to do that," including an IPO. "I've done it with the folks at Bain. That's certainly one of the options as they're looking forward to monetizing their investment in the company."
Brandon and his wife, Jan, plan to keep their Ann Arbor home. But they've already landed an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, from where Brandon — who has not lived outside Michigan since 1978 — plans to commute to Toys "R" Us headquarters in Wayne, N.J., and the couple intends to experience daily life in the Big Apple.
Brandon sounds like a man pleased to be back on the familiar ground of corporate America. There he'll be tackling marketing and operational challenges, building (or repairing) a brand buffeted by changing technology and changing consumer tastes. (All of which, by the way, applied at Michigan, as much as the die-hards refuse to acknowledge it.)
In the wake of his resignation last October, Brandon fielded inquiries for "jobs related to athletics," but he quickly decided against those in favor of potential CEO roles because they didn't offer the emotional pull he felt when former President Mary Sue Coleman hired him to be Michigan's athletic director.
"It was never my life's ambition to be in the athletics world," he said. "What became very appealing to me was to serve my university and be reconnected with my school and the athletic program I respected and appreciated so much for what it did for me."
Critics hungry for the old AD to lash back at the university, a majority of its regents or the fans and students who hastened his exit will be disappointed. He's not obliging, in part because his separation agreement with Michigan bars it and in part because Brandon is moving on to a new chapter with the knowledge his tenure is defined by more than Brady Hoke's won-loss record.
"I'm proud of a lot of things we accomplished during my five years at Michigan," he said. "It was a chapter in my life that I will never forget." He's probably not the only one.
What about that didn't go right — the mistakes, the terms of your departure, the criticism by alumni, students and fans, I asked. How will the lessons of your Michigan tenure, many of them searing, inform how you run Toys "R" Us as its next CEO?
"Every job experience I've had, every lesson I've learned — some the easy way, some the hard way — changes you and hopefully makes you better," he replied. "If you don't approach things that way, then you don't improve, and I'm wired to constantly be challenging myself to, 'how can I do things better, what mistakes have I made?'"
"And, most importantly, how do I never make the same mistake twice."
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.