University of Vermont

Interview: Rachael Ray COO John Hall '85

John Hall photo
John Hall '85. (Photo: Andy Duback)

It didn’t take John Hall very long to make his mark on Wall Street after graduating from UVM in 1985 with a degree in finance. He went straight to work in the banking industry in New York, got his MBA from Columbia and became a vice president and CEO while still in his 30s. His most recent job as president and COO of Rachael Ray, Watch Entertainment, Inc. requires all of the skill sets he’s acquired over the years including some he learned at UVM.

Hall spoke to UVM Today at the 2013 UVM Family Business Awards about his UVM experience, his dream job at Rachael Ray and the challenges of working in the media entertainment industry.

UVM Today: You’ve had a really diverse career since graduating from UVM. What led you to your current position at Rachael Ray?

Hall: I think of my career as having three sections to it. The first section was in commercial banking, which was lending capital to media entertainment and technology businesses; the second was investment banking; and the third was in operations. The common element has been a brand or an audience at the core of the operating businesses that I’ve had the opportunity to run. When I was a principal at Allen & Company in New York during the second part of my career I started having a growing interest in the operating side. One of our clients was having some challenges and said, "If you want to learn how to be a CEO, come run this business, and I’ll show you you how." That was the first of three operating roles based on relationships with Allen & Company clients. I was introduced to Rachael and her husband John (Cusimano) through a partner at Allen & Company who is their financial advisor and has been a friend of mine for 20-plus years. It’s really a story about relationships and maintaining your network. If there’s anything young people today ought to understand it’s that your “network is your net worth.”

How would you describe your job at Rachael Ray?

It can be a different job every day, which makes it enjoyable and a lot of fun, particularly because we’re supporting a brand that is also a human being and has the ability to expand and grow in whatever ways Rachael and her audience wants to expand their relationship. Some days I’m focused on product development in the context of an actual piece of merchandise and how to take it to market, what channels and distributions are appropriate for it and what customer segment would be best served by it. On another day I might do the same type of analysis, but in the context of a media property like an individual piece of content for our Web business or a new television show, a new book or a magazine. I think of myself as an operator generically, so that means I apply the principles of strategy, innovation, product development, marketing, and sales, along with finance and accounting, and mergers and acquisitions. In operating language, you have to know what your levers are that you can move and what those levers will do in terms of your key metrics for performance. Being able to distill down an opportunity quickly and figure out what the capital requirements might be – whether it’s human capital, financial capital, or brand equity – is very important. Having the different experiences that I’ve had has been very helpful.  

Do you consult with Rachael on most decisions?

Rachael and John made a decision relatively early on that rather than raising capital and owning and operating each line of business, they would prefer to develop partnerships with like-minded family-owned and operated businesses wherever possible. We have these types of partnerships with each one of our media properties, which allows us to have a very lean business at our company, Watch Entertainment. Brand integrity is always maintained above all else. The mission of our team is to support Rachael’s ability to have that continuity between the brands, her creative vision and what the customer experience is. Rachael is at the core of all content creation. She writes all of her own recipes, creates all of the content that bears her name and collaborates with the content creators at the other media properties. This way she always has a first-hand perspective on how it all comes together and is able to approve everything so that it’s always coming through her voice.

You have said that UVM prepared you well for your career. How so?

I got a strong, well-rounded foundation that prepared me for going to a larger urban center like New York that was going to be heavily competitive. The diversity of UVM is significantly higher than it was when I graduated in 1985, but diversity of social perspectives, diversity of backgrounds and diversity of one’s point of view on life was always very high. You were appreciated for having an individual point of view, but also for working in a team environment or as a member of an organization or group, and there really weren’t any walls to being able to socialize, study and work with people from any other type of background or discipline. The undergraduate program in finance was very quantitative, and I found that to be extremely helpful, because if you can’t "do numbers" you just aren’t going to be competitive in any discipline these days. It’s equally important to be able to communicate and express yourself verbally and in writing. It’s incumbent upon every student to come out as well prepared as possible in all of these areas.

I had the benefit of having just as strong an undergraduate business program as the graduate business program I participated in. In many ways, my motivation for getting a graduate degree was to be competitive for the career opportunities that said you needed an MBA. I haven’t observed that you necessarily need an MBA to purse the opportunities you might want today, so that puts much more emphasis on choosing your undergraduate education wisely and optimizing it like I did at UVM.

There are an impressive number of UVM alumni from the 1980s who have become high level executives at major corporations. Why do you think that is?

New York in the 1980s was an incredible place. It was the bright lights, big city era. It was exciting once you had a job, but it wasn’t necessarily easy to get one. I was very fortunate to have found a job right out of college at one of the Money Center Banks that had a training program. It was nine months and sort of a mini-graduate degree that someone coming out of a liberal arts school would have experienced in an MBA program, and I suspect most people from my era benefited from similar programs that are now a relic of the past. The recruiting profile then was typically to come out of the Ivy League, so coming from a non-Ivy school you definitely felt a sense of confidence on your peers’ part, which I think was a form of motivation to over-perform their level to close any perceived gap. Part of that might have also been because the people who were our bosses occupying the positions we strived to attain one day, commonly came from those same Ivy League schools.

You worked at least 12 hours a day and there was a sense of who could stay at work longer and who was working harder. I think we were prepared to take initiative, identify where there might be an opportunity and then take action. I took a capstone management course as part of my undergraduate business program with Professor Nancy Meyer, and one of the primary points throughout the entire semester was that your ability to manage uncertainty and make decisions amidst uncertainty is going to be the primary determinant of your success, and I think many of us embraced that.

It’s obviously a different job market today. Do you have any advice for students about to enter the workforce?

It’s critically important to get an internship, especially today because a lot of companies really want interns today to play a meaningful role and to apply their mind and think about things. One of the primary assets they want from a young person in an internship is to be free of the legacy way of thinking that their organization might have. They want fresh perspectives and fresh thinking, not just someone to get coffee and make copies. You have to be willing to do whatever someone asks you to do when you first start, and I’m beginning to see that willingness again on the part of young people. It’s almost as though it took a few years of recession for it to hit home that you have to start out modestly. You can still be just as ambitious, but you can’t walk in assuming that you are going to be taken care of the way your parents may have taken care of you.

With my generation there was a little bit of fear and a lot of ambition. We always went to work knowing that there could be a layoff and we’d be gone. I think the recent lack of employment opportunities and the resulting competition has made younger people today more willing again to say things like “I’ll do anything to get my foot in the door.” I’m definitely seeing more data points that lead to new graduates behaving more like we did when we got out of college.