Peter Horst Podcast

Available on iTunes

Available on Stitcher

Get it on Google Play

Available on Soundcloud

We interviewed Peter Horst, former CMO of Hershey Company, in our latest podcast. Horst shared his biggest challenges, his thoughts on finding balance, and his best advice for the next generation of marketers.Here are our top three favorite highlights:

On facing challenges.  

“Well, I’d say the most challenging might have been the last one I had, which was Pop Secret Popcorn, and that had been for years, I think something like 10 years running, the most successful new product. It was just, you know, an absolute darling of the company… And about 10 minutes after I took the job, a whole bunch of things came together to just bring all that growth to a screeching halt.

“The penetration of the microwaves as an appliance in the home tapped out, penetration of microwave popcorn tapped out, the patent on the technology they gave at a product superiority expired, price brand… changed the world from this wonderful glorious place with 35% growth every year to absolute dead halt, flat.

“That required not only figuring out what was going on and developing a strategy for what to do about it, but it also meant convincing everybody around me who had built their careers on the strategies that had gotten to the brand at that point, gotten the brand to that point, convincing them that it was time to really shift gears and let that go and do something else because the world was a very different place.”

On work-life balance.  

“I put through this filter of the value by being there physically versus what’s it going cost, not just from a family perspective, but every trip you take means you’re not with your team back at the home office and, you know, that has a form of cost, too. So I just try to make sure that every time I jump on a plane, it was for a clear and obvious benefit that couldn’t be achieved some other way.”

On what he’d say to a 30-year old.

“This is the time to be bold. You’ve got some good experience under your belt. You know what you’re doing. You’ve got some expertise but you’re young enough that you can swing it for the fences. Whether that means being bold, and wherever you are think big, take risks, push the envelope, or if that means jumping into something that feels the nobody’s making and the sweaty palms kind of opportunity. That will be a time to don’t overly self-edit and don’t play it too safe.”

You’ll find the full interview and transcript below.

Daniel: Today on Connections.

Peter: And, yeah, the course of some of the career moves we’ve discussed, we’ve talked about moving from Minneapolis to Denver to Omaha to then Washington, D.C. And that put a strain on my family. And my poor daughter, by the time she hit sixth grade, she’d been into five grammar schools. And, you know, I had to hit each and every one of those sort of inflection points, make a decision that’s worth it, what’s the cause, what’s gonna be the impact to other people. But then having landed in Washington, D.C., that was a point which I said, “Okay, I’m not gonna ask anybody to do this again.”

Daniel: My name is Daniel Rodic and I’m your host at Connections, brought to you by Exact Media. We created this podcast as we realized that a lot of people we spend time with in our day-to-day work, brand managers, marketers, those who are trying to rise quickly in their careers could benefit from hearing the stories of the leaders they look up to in their industry.

In every episode, we cover the stories that you’ve never heard of, where do they grow up, how do they get their first job, or their successes and failures in their career, and how do they recover from them. My hope is that you will take away some interesting tidbits and tactics that will help you accelerate your careers. I don’t wanna spend too much time talking about us, but so you have context on how we’re involved in the industry, at Exact Media, we work specifically with marketers to help them sample their products through the parcels of online retailers. For example, if you bought running shoes online, we might give you a sample of a healthy granola bar in that parcel. If that interests you at all, visit us at Now, onto our guest.

Today’s guest is Peter Horst, the former chief marketing officer of The Hershey Company. Peter’s story is incredible. He’s worked in more industries than most people could accomplish in multiple lifetimes. Before landing at Hershey as their CMO, he has had many dreams in life. Early on, he dreamed of becoming a professional musician. Later in life, he became a news reporter and had aspirations to become the next Dan Rather. He’s lived coast to coast across United States, working diverse places like the Hollywood mailroom at ICM, a brand manager at General Mills, a marketer and financial services at Ameritrade and Capital One, and many, many other stops along the way. Here is Exact Media’s CEO, Ray Cao, interviewing Peter Horst.

Ray: Really, really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. Maybe you can just start this off by just sharing a little bit about, you know, what you do and maybe one of your more recent roles and just a little bit about what Peter Horst is doing today.

Peter: Sure. Well, most recently, I was the chief marketing officer at The Hershey Company. And in that capacity, I had kind of an interesting portfolio of accountabilities from the global brand stewardship to marketing excellence for the organization, global innovation, design, [inaudible 00:03:25] strategy, and the collection of P&Ls; that were about the retail stores, the flagship stores, and the global licensing.

Prior to that, I spent a dozen years at Capital One doing a variety of marketing leadership roles, and prior to that, a whole bizarre mix of things that I’m sure we’ll touch on at some point. But at the moment, I’m taking my first breather in 30-plus years of working and thinking about what to do next and having conversations that range from a Fortune 50 to a pre-revenue startup, but really kind of wanted to take some time to sort of recharge and, as my wife was at a bit of a crossroads in terms of where her company was going, really wanted to take the time to reset together and craft life as we would like it to be. So that’s where you catch me at this moment.

Ray: Is it a strange feeling to not have a packed schedule every day?

Peter: It is a really weird and terrible feeling, I have to admit. It’s given me a little bit of a clue that I’m probably not one of those guys that will suffer in retirement since I found no lack of interesting fun things to do with my time. But, no, it’s been great, but at the same time, I’m feeling a little bit of an itch to get more engaged. But it has been nice. I spent a few weeks in the Galapagos doing some diving and some hiking. I’ve been doing a little bit of consulting, some speaking. I’ve done a little bit of writing, trying to get a book out of my system that I’ve been kicking around for a while. So it’s been a really, really nice time. But I’m also looking forward to being a little bit more at full capacity.

Ray: Awesome. I am gonna go back to your career a little later on and try to dissect and understand, which I am really been able to on paper, just how you jump from one industry to another and then back. But I’m gonna first dial it back to just your childhood. You know, what was your childhood like? Where did you grow up? What’s your family like? What are your parents like?

Peter: Sure. Well, I grew up in New York City, the Upper West Side, in Manhattan, before it was full of Starbucks and cheap little cafés, and the block I grew up on was almost entirely abandoned brownstones with stray cats in them. And now, of course, you couldn’t touch them for less than, God knows what, $10 million, so very different place back then. But my father was a psychologist for the New York State Mental Health System and my mother was a musician in the field of early music, renaissance music, which is to the say the particular part of music that really generates no money whatsoever, but lots of passion.

So I grew up in a house that was very, very musically oriented, going back several generations, went through grammar school. I went to the Ethical Culture School which was where the extremely wealthy, liberal, elite-centered kids, and I was one of a small handful of token, middle-class, normal kids who went there. But then after sixth grade, my parents decided I probably wasn’t seeing enough with the real world, and I think the last draw was when we had another kid walk into my house and looked at my mother and said, “Who is she, the maid?”

From there, it was New York City Public School which was quite a culture shock, from a cozy, pampered little environment to gangs and switchblades and very different kind of life. So that was some of what early childhood was like.

Ray: Which part, the pre-crazy school and the post sort of school, left the greatest impression on you in terms of your upbringing?

Peter: Excuse me. Well, I have to say both left an impression. I still, to this day, will, every now and then, think back to one of the ethics class taught by the kindly Mr. Grup [SP] who would come in and smoke his pipe and challenge us with ethical questions and play Martin Luther King speeches. So this thing, as the notions of, you know, what’s the right thing to do, have really stuck with me, that some of which I attribute to those days. And then, you know, certainly, impression was made jumping into a slightly tougher environment which I had to kinda quickly readjust and deal with the different kind of adversity and kind of find my way. So they’re both very valuable.

Following, you know, that particular middle school, I then went to The High School of Music and Art where I was quite certain I was gonna be a professional French horn player. So, at least at that point, thinking I was on a very different path than the one I ended up on.

Ray: Interesting. So you ended up going into…you did undergrad at Harvard for like history and literature, right? How did that happen, just going from being very musically focused to that?

Peter: Sure. Well, even as I was going to Harvard, I was still believing I wanted to be a horn player, but I just wanted to be an educated horn player. So for the first, I would say, two years of college, I was still thinking I was gonna be a musician, and I was studying with the principal horn player of the Boston Symphony. But it was right about the middle school that I started to think, “Boy, the world is a really big place and I’m not sure I wanna spend all my days thinking about my lips.” And, you know, I found that the days that I was really nailing it from musical perspective, I wasn’t really paying that much attention to the rest of school and accountabilities and vice versa.

So it’s about then that I decided, you know, there was something else for me to do out there, that I would always love music, but I didn’t wanna turn it into a daily job. What I had been doing during the summer to, you know, summer jobs was really what was one of the most fun jobs I ever had. I worked as a radio news reporter for a medical news radio station, if you can believe it. But it was…

Ray: How did you get that gig?

Peter: Well, it was through a family friend who ran a company that did medical education and had created this little kind of, call it an experiment, which was a very specialized radio network that broadcast 24 hours as medical news for physicians and it was supported with pharmaceutical advertising. So because it was a small little, you know, non-union shop, I got to interview people and literally, you know, cut tape and edit and write stories and announce things on the air. So, you know, I was thinking, “This is great. You know, if I’m not gonna be a musician, I’m gonna be Dan Rather. I’ll be Ted Koppel.” That became, you know, career path number two as I did that every summer, and even 1980, covered the Democratic National Convention from the medical news perspective. So, you know, that was the notion at that point.

And so I had a few conversations with people who are in that business who gradually kinda convinced me that, you know, it’s not exactly always a fun job and were sort of generally dissuading me from that. So that gradually became no longer the front and center strategy.

Ray: Okay. So up until this point, you were a bit of an unusual child. You had a different interest and such. What end up happening after? What happened after graduation or right beforehand?

Peter: Right. Well, so as I was approaching graduation, thinking, “Okay. It’s not musician. It’s not Dan Rather. What is it gonna be?” And I spent a lot of time talking to people who would tell me about what they did and what’s out there. And I still have this notion of the general zone of broadcasting but maybe not as on a talent. And, of course, I was speaking to someone who worked at a conglomerate that had some of the radio stations but they also happen to own what, at the time, may still be, I’m not sure, was the largest talent agency, International Creative Management or ICM. And he said, “Well, you’ve got this kind of artsy background. You know, maybe you’d wanna think about becoming a talent agent.”

And that struck me as kind of interesting as a way to stay engaged in the world but in a little bit more of a professional capacity, i.e. not a starving artist living in a, you know, basement room somewhere. So it’s kind of the classic Hollywood thing. I literally took my freshly minted Harvard history and literature degree and I went to work in the mailroom, delivering packages to agents and movie stars and their managers and other, you know, interesting cast of characters. And did that for three months and then, one fine [inaudible 00:12:20] day, was promoted to be an assistant agent which was sort of glorified admin/junior agent.

So if you ever watch “Entourage,” it’s about as hideous a life as portrayed by those poor young folks, you know, working for the agents, getting screamed at, and running around doing menial things. So that was the first job out of college.

Ray: Wow. I actually just finished reading the story on Creative Artist Agency, CAA. Was that around the same time as ICM or did ICM happen after?

Peter: Yeah, that was just starting to become a real thing while I was there.

Ray: Okay, okay. But, I mean, everything we’ve talked about, like delivering checks or, you know, doing all those menial things, it was unreal to you. But I guess they’re still important, the way you have to treat the talent, right?

Peter: Absolutely. If the talent’s happy, then, you know, everybody else is happy. So it kind of is just do what it takes.

Ray: What happened after? So you got promoted?

Peter: Yeah. So I spent a year there working in the TV and the literary departments and then, you know, reached a conclusion that this was probably not the right place for me, that I looked around and saw, you know, some wonderful people, some people who you really necessarily didn’t wanna hold out as personal role models, and a profession that seem to rely on a bunch of skills that I probably wasn’t too keen on honing.

Ray: Were you one of the few Harvard grad as well that was in the industry?

Peter: Oh, I couldn’t speak to the industry. I was certainly the only one at that particular place. But, yeah, I think there was a way in which I was, you know, at times, viewed as sort of, “What’s this kind of brainy guy doing here?” So, yeah, I didn’t always feel the greatest cultural fit although I had a great affinity for the product, you know, the industry. So that was why I thought, “Well, maybe entertainment law would be a way to still be engaged with that world but bring a little bit more of a cerebral discipline and profession and not just be a smooth-talking guy.”

So I had a lot of friends who were just running off to law school sort of for lack of anything else they could think of doing. So I thought before doing that, let me spend a year at a law firm, get a closer look and see whether law school really is a great idea. So I joined a big New York law firm as a paralegal and got to work up-close and personal with, you know, roughly 300 often very unhappy lawyers who wish they had thought of something else to do.

So I recently quickly thought, “Yeah, law is probably not it.” And, you know, what I wasn’t quite realizing, but later look back on and see, that I was sort of looking for that whole brain balance. You know, the world of the talent agency was just very much about creativity but there wasn’t a lot of kind of rigor and intellectual sort of, you know, depth and discipline. The law firm, you know, pretty logical, analytical, rigorous, but not a shred of creativity. So I was working in the corporate department and, therefore, got a little bit of a view into the client side corporate world, and thought, “Gosh, maybe that’s a place to go.” But mostly, I thought, you know, what I need is some skills, some credibility, some bonafides that will let me enter an industry that I find interesting and do it with credibility. That’s when I thought, “I should go to a business school.”

And, you know, in between applying and attending a year later, I took stock and said, “All right, I’ve got radio reporter, talent agency, law firm. That’s a pretty weird bundle of stuff with which to be embarking on a new business career. Let me use this last year before I go to school to get myself a step closer.” So I spent a year as a magazine editor at the American Management Association where I got to interview executives and consultants and academics about leadership and management and write articles and, you know, gradually get my feet wet in the content that I’d eventually be diving into. So that was a good…

Ray: How did you get that role, though? You just set out to look at all the publications that fit your criteria or…?

Peter: Well, no, I didn’t have the wisdom to develop a strategy to seek a job like that. But I think that it was a recruiter because I’ve had sort of journalism and because I’ve had some corporate, at least, exposed experience through the law firm. That was a nice combination for, you know, doing journalism in a management context. So I was just sort of a lucky fit there.

Ray: How old were you at the time before going to get your MBA?

Peter: I think I was just turning 26. I had worked for three years after college.

Ray: Was there anxiety throughout the three years trying to go through this little self-discovery phase?

Peter: Well, I would say not so much anxiety because at each phase, you know, I thought I had figured it out, but it was more, I think, a sense of impatience. And, you know, that’s one of the things, as I looked back and, you know, reflect, and then give, you know, wise gray-haired advice to youngsters, it’s to be really wary of being too impatient, too early. You know, as an example, one passing thought I had as I was graduating college was, “Gosh, maybe I’d enjoy being a doctor.” I said, “But, you know, I did a humanities background. I’d have to like take a year or two making up math and science. Oh my gosh, and I’d be a year or two behind everybody else, and that’s just absolutely unacceptable. So therefore, you know, x that task.”

And looking back, what’s a year or two when you’re talking about a lifetime doing the right thing, right? And so, likewise, there have been times when, you know, I look back, I remember, you know, one day at General Mills, I was, you know, a perfectly successful, rising young marketing executive at a perfectly great company. But I said to myself, “Boy, when I do product sampling, I go over to the food labs and I taste, you know, 30 different flavors of Hamburger Helper. And when some of the guys I left behind at ICM do product sampling take a little Broadway show or a movie or read a book, that’s the stuff of what they work with, and what I work with is, you know, dehydrated potatoes and powdered sauce. And, you know, what was it, lack of a little bit of patience to suffer through another year of being a slave admin and then, you know, I would’ve found myself in a very different place, or was that a really, you know, prudent, wise, thoughtful decision I made?”

So that, I think, was more what I was feeling is a sort of restless need for a forward motion and sort of realization of, you know, what I was looking for.

Ray: Got it. So you spent a couple of years at Tuck, right, at Dartmouth and get your MBA, and what happened throughout that whole experience?

Peter: Well, one of the reasons I chose Tuck was that it was, you know, considered to have a very broad-based general management focus, because at that time, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I might wanna do, you know, with a business degree. I have this notion of broadcasting, communication of some sort. But, you know, operations, finance marketing, couldn’t have the slightest idea. So therefore, didn’t wanna pick a school that was known for having a particular functional vertical strength. I also chose it because, you know, small school known for kind of collaborative team-oriented culture. So all that sort of fit with what I was looking for, and indeed, totally delivered on it.

But one of the things that happened was year one, day one, walked into a, you know, first year marketing class and totally fell in love, and combination of things. I think one was marketing is that whole brain endeavor that I talked about before. You know, it absolutely forces you to roll around numbers and think strategically and analytically and wrestle with those sort of tough, you know, less brain problems. But then also do the pivot and then figure out, “Well, then how does two plus two equal five? And how do you generate, you know, an interesting disruptive idea? And how do you turn, you know, language into motivating magic?”

So really, the full brain utilization, the very, very varied activity that I had been looking for without quite realizing it. And the other was just that a really fantastic teacher, a guy named Rohit Deshpande who moved onto Harvard Business School. But that just, you know, right there, told me, “This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for.” And from then on, it was clearly marketing for me.

Ray: Did you always liked school and did it come natural to you or you did it because you had to?

Peter: I really did. Yeah, no, I actually really did. And, you know, I remember, every term at Harvard when this [inaudible 00:21:54] course book would come out, I would just sit and pour through it in agony, thinking, “Oh gosh, I’d wanna take this, too. And what about that? Oh, but I have to. It’s major requirement.” So, you know, I can’t say I always enjoyed every term paper I ever wrote but there’s something about just having this amazing store of learning opportunities sort of sitting out there in front of you and being surrounded by all these really interesting people that I really enjoyed.

Ray: So what sort of decisions did you sort of have to face before graduating from Dartmouth?

Peter: Well, it kinda came down to, you know, what kind of marketing environment did I wanna jump into? And, you know, there are the usual suspects in the CPG world. There was what we then called industrial marketing, now B2B marketing. There were some of the more direct marketers like, you know, MXs at that time. So there was no question in my mind that it was going to be some flavor of marketing or another, and I ended up opting for General Mills because that was, you know, generally one of the great finishing schools for marketing, but also one that seem to have a reputation for delivering relatively more responsibility early on in one’s career than some of the others. So that how it all appeal for me.

And there had been a historically very strong connection between Tuck and General Mills so that, I think, helped. I really felt like I clicked with the people who were coming out and, you know, these were the kind of people I wanted to be around. So that became a fairly easy decision.

Ray: So you grow up in New York, you spend some time in L.A., and then now, you’re in Minneapolis. What was General Mills like?

Peter: Yeah. Well, before even getting there, you know, the shock and dismay and just bewilderment amongst my friends and family when I said I’m moving to Minnesota, like, “Minne what? Where even is that?” I said, “Well, if you look on the weather map, it’s the dark and blue cold dot, you know, in the top part of the country.”

Ray: Colder than Canada.

Peter: Yeah. Like, you know, that old New Yorker cartoon of, you know, the map of the world according to the Manhattan dweller, it’s exactly what, you know, everybody sort of felt and believed that I grew up with. So they were quite [inaudible 00:24:34] when I made that call. So Minneapolis, you know, in many ways, is a terrific place. You know, more theaters per capita than, you know, any other cities, lots of parks and lakes and wonderful things, just hellacious winters, blazing hot summers, so, you know, some challenges, too. But it was great. I mean, I had an absolutely great experience at General Mills.

It does indeed, at least, it did anyway, at that time, hand you way more responsibility than you should actually have at that point in your life and it was such a tremendous learning experience, and I had a whole great variety of brand and business environments to deal with from, you know, big brands to small brands, new products, established products, kid, adults, price-driven, brand-driven, seasonal, or local, so a really nice rounding of general management, brand management experiences over the course of six years.

Ray: What do you remember this or like what would you say was the most challenging brand assignment that you were given at General Mills?

Peter: Well, I’d say the most challenging might have been the last one I had, which was Pop Secret Popcorn, and that had been for years, I think something like 10 years running, the most successful new product. It was just, you know, an absolute darling of the company. And the guy who was my boss at the time had kind of made his career on the growth and strength of that business. And about 10 minutes after I took the job, a whole bunch of things came together to just bring all that growth to a screeching halt.

The penetration of the microwaves as an appliance in the home tapped out, penetration of microwave popcorn tapped out, the patent on the technology they gave at a product superiority expired, price brands, you know, came on screaming said just one thing after another, suddenly, you know, changed the world from this wonderful glorious place with 35% growth every year to absolute, you know, dead halt, flat.

So that required not only figuring out what was going on and developing a strategy for what to do about it, but it also meant convincing everybody around me who had built their careers on the strategies that had gotten to the brand at that point, gotten the brand to that point, convincing them that it was time to really shift gears and let that go and do something else because the world was a very different place. So it was a challenging, challenging business.

And, you know, some time ago, General Mills sold the brand off, which I think was a sign of just what a tough place it was to be. But still, you know, we did a lot of product innovation, develop a whole new advertising campaign, developed a new sort of marketing resource allocation strategy to address a lot of the regional differences of the brands competing with us. So it was a, you know, mini front battle, and we’ve made some very, very good progress, but that was a tough one.

Ray: Very interesting. Up until, I guess, the General Mills [inaudible 00:28:07], you’ve been jumping from place to place. I guess when you’re at General Mills, like was the plan to always move on and try something different or was there a trigger that got you to say, “Hey, I wanna go discover something else or I think I wanna change?”

Peter: Yeah. I went there open to the possibility that I would be there for a while and move on or that I would, you know, stay there more or less forever as some people do. And for me, the trigger was I just reached the point where I was feeling a little bit of been there, done that. And this was early mid ’90s, and the industry, I think, as a whole was not in a very interesting place, that it was facing tons of cost pressure from the trade, and therefore, there wasn’t a lot of investment and innovation.

And one planning cycle started to feel like another for me, and I looked at my boss and thought, “Wait, I don’t cover his job.” You know, he’s not rolling up his sleeves and wrestling with ideas with the ad agency the way I am. He’s sort of collating my stuff with other people’s stuff and that just didn’t look like something I was excited to strive for. So that, for me, was the moment that said, “You know, maybe this is the time to take your great years of learning and move on somewhere else.”

Ray: Did you go, throughout your term at General Mills, and maybe more so in the beginning, ever think that, “Hey, I would just climb the ladder and accelerate and hopefully get to a very senior level at General Mills?”

Peter: Well, I’ll admit I’d came to General Mills with this notion of it’s near impossible to do that, that, you know, only the very, very few would ever get to do that so, you know, I’d be lucky to survive two years and, oh gosh, maybe I’d be lucky enough to survive three years. So it was never something that I had as my sort of plan A vision that I would end up as, you know, the CEO of General Mills, but more that, you know, I was going someplace where I knew every year was money in the bank, so to speak, you know, building career assets and, you know, either continue to do that on the merits of it or, you know, every year I spent there was valuable currency to take somewhere else. So, you know, I was quite open to both possibilities.

What surprised me a little bit was I reached a point where I thought, “Gosh, I’m just not that excited to keep doing this.” So that was where I started exploring new opportunities.

Ray: All right. So post-General Mills, you had a complete industry change, right? Did you, at all, entertain going to another packaged goods or something similar?

Peter: Well, you know, all along the way, actually, I think my fifth month at General Mills, I started getting [inaudible 00:31:06] calls and many of them were for, you know, foods companies and various sorts. But at that point, you know, I was thinking I’m looking for something that’s, you know, very generically different. So to do same thing, different food company wouldn’t have scratched the itch I was feeling for a very different set of challenges and issues.

You know, one theme throughout my, you know, career and life has been sort of craving variety, craving, you know, multiplicity of challenges. So in the course of, you know, poking around and talking to people, I happened onto an old friend who was at, what was called US West way back then, which was one of the baby bell companies post-AT&T breakup. And it was one of the more aggressive in terms of getting into unregulated space of wireless, and what we called multimedia, and eventually, cable television.

So, you know, that was sort of, in some ways, everything that, for me, the food industry was not. It was full of, you know, strategic people and massive change and tons and tons of innovation and lots of big questions to be sorted through, you know, Hollywood meets the phone company, meets the cable company, and where is it all gonna go. And what was really interesting is that a number of the companies in that space, US West among them, had never really had to develop a marketing discipline because they were regulated monopolies and marketing was you raise the price and you sent out a piece of mail talking to the customers, “Guess what, your price just went up.”

So they were bringing in people like me who could bring in a marketing sensibility and skillset and both active and internal marketing consultants, and then eventually, take online roles to see that capability across the company. And I’ve touched on so many of these things that had been interesting to me from, you know, the world of entertainment to broadcasting and communications to journalism, and it’s all sort of in this big swirl. So it was just an enormously fascinating place to dive into.

Ray: I imagine, though, the culture was pretty different from General Mills?

Peter: What was really interesting about US West at the time and, I imagine, other companies like it is that there really wasn’t one culture because you had, you know, the legacy phone company which did have its own, you know, sort of bell culture. But then you had all these other pockets of activity that had been brought on through acquisition or through, you know, investment, but you had groups that had people coming from Hollywood, from Silicon Valley, from consulting firms. So there are really, you know, multiple cultures all over the place. And even as you switch roles, you could just feel this massive change in the air and in just the dynamic of how things work from one division to another.

Ray: How much of the knowledge and expertise you built up at General Mills was actually useful and relevant, and how much was it, “Okay, I’ve gotta learn a whole new set of things with this new role?”

Peter: It was really both. There was a ton I brought that was incredibly valuable and, you know, things that, to me, were very basic blocking and tackling of marketing that, for some of the people there, were really, you know, big news, like how do you think through positioning and how do you develop a marketing plan? But then it was quite eye-opening and that I also realized what a wonderfully resourced and cradled world I lived in where so much have been taken care of and so many questions had been answered.

Whereas in, you know, an environment like where US West was, you have to sit there and ask yourself, “Well, what’s our sales channel?” Well, that was never a question at General Mills because there was the sales group. That was the sales channel, so check that box. But they were so depending on, you know, what part of the business we were working on and what we were sort of working to create.

There were so many more questions that had to be answered and so many, you know, more fundamental issues of what’s the revenue model and how do things work and what resources do we use and how do we go to market that I hadn’t been, you know, prepared to answer. So there’s also just a ton of learning to do, not to mention just the learning that was necessary to understand how do phones work, how does the internet work, what’s the difference between cable television and satellite television, what are, you know, the relevant advantages. There’s a lot of, you know, topical learning to do but also, just, it really pushed some of my broader marketing and general management learning.

Ray: In the role in the industry, were you given any freedom and flexibility to do any crazy marketing, or you just sort of have to follow some strict rules and guidelines?

Peter: Well, you know, I wore a bunch of different hats. You know, there was a time where I was…two times where I was an internal consultant leading, you know, kind of almost an in-house consulting firm. Excuse me. So in that role, it was less about, you know, practicing marketing. I had a role in the actual phone company where it was a little bit more sort of down the straight and narrow and it was less about, you know, very little about campaigns and just more about, you know, packaging and pricing and structure.

When I got into the internet yellow pages, which was one of the fun sort of entrepreneurial in-house stints I had, that’s where we started, you know, developing some [inaudible 00:37:13] to really explore, you know, not just what was the content, but just how do you generate traffic for this crazy new thing called the internet yellow pages and how do you use business development partnerships? How do you use, you know, the good old banner ad in the world where we weren’t yet able to do geo-targeting but we had a 14-state customer strategy? How can you cleverly use, you know, media choices? How do you craft creative that is inherently regionally-oriented so that you’re getting more of the traffic you want and less of the stuff you don’t? Yeah, so I wouldn’t call, say, there’s a whole lot of really wacky marketing going on, but we had to get kind of creative and clever about how to do it.

Ray: I’m curious. Like up until this point in time, like did your family ever say, “Hey, son, what are you doing with your life?” Are they getting nervous with your different adventures to satisfy your curiosity?

Peter: I don’t think anyone was nervous because, you know, they saw signs of progress and success. But I will say, you know, in some ways, I’m kind of the black sheep because, you know, my family is full of a lot of, you know, writers and musicians and doctors and academic types and not many sort of grubby business suits. So I think there was, you know, probably deep in some of their hearts, a little bit of disappointment that, you know, here’s this kid who had, you know, some degree of creative abilities, you know, some potential to do something a little bit more aloft and he’s out there doing business stuff and stamping out granola bars. But, no, I don’t think they were ever actually nervous on my behalf.

Ray: So I’m curious. What happened after? I mean, there’s this whole sort of, again, I think, at least, slight change in direction after US West, right, and then before you ended up at Hershey. What happened during those years?

Peter: Well, so my last role at US West was running a bunch of stuff for the internet yellow pages. I was, you know, leading national sales and business development and marketing. And I had also done, you know, a lot in the world of helping position their cable data telephony play. So, you know, I was sort of, at that point, digital guy. And I was approached by a recruiter who said, “Hey, I’ve got this eccentric entrepreneur in Omaha, Nebraska who’s got a killer bell prop on the web, wants to spend 100% of [inaudible 00:40:03] on marketing and doesn’t have a marketing guy.”

So at that point, it was really less about, you know, I’m making a move into financial services, but more I was making a move into a, you know, major disruptor in the digital space that, by the way, happen to be an online brokerage, Ameritrade. So, you know, even though I was kinda like in life in Denver and there were interesting things to do at US West, I just couldn’t resist a call like that where it was clearly gonna be dog years. I was experiencing growth and stretch with that kind of, you know, an aggressive play in the space that was just taking off like crazy. And, you know, the opportunity to take what was then something like a $200 million budget with literally a team that was myself and a 23-year-old marketing coordinator, you know, I knew that was gonna be a rare opportunity and that it couldn’t be passed up.

Ray: How early was this at Ameritrade? It must have been pretty young at Ameritrade, right?

Peter: Well, the company had been around, I wanna say something like 20-ish years. You know, Joe Ricketts started it as a one-man, you know, stock brokerage in Omaha and grew it and had the vision that, you know, technology would transform that industry and started building and buying, you know, the first brokerage to do telephone trading, the first brokerage to do internet trading. And he had four different brokerages with different brands, different bell props, different price points that he called his, you know, extended market segmentation study. And then just as I joined, three of those were rolled together to form Ameritrade, and that was when he unleashed the big bucks, what, at the time, was considered just ludicrously crazy spending, and that’s when I joined.

So, yeah, for a while there, it was called the Ameritrade Strategy when dot-coms spent big to buy share. And I worry that we even inspired some world-class stupid activity in that space. But for us, you know, after the first quarterly earnings report showed we’re opening accounts at record associate levels, Wall Street said, “Wow, keep it up.” But for a while there, when I saw the kind of spending we’re doing, I thought Joe had completely lost his mind.

Ray: What were some of the more memorable or crazy initiatives that you did to acquire customers?

Peter: Well, you know, in a lot of ways, it wasn’t crazy initiatives in that, you know, we were rigorously, maniacally managing every penny and tracking the ROI. We used, literally, hundreds of unique 800 numbers so that we could tell exactly what print ad and which issue of “USA Today” was delivering. But what we did do, you know, we were pretty edgy in terms of the content. You know, there’s one campaign that really took on weirdly, cult status, and you may remember was a kid named Stewart, who had crazy multicolored hair, Xeroxing his face and teaching his middle-aged boss, Mr. P, to trade online. But that thing went nuts. I mean, Bill Clinton did a version of it. They were in all, you know, the late night shows and it became part of popular culture in a really crazy way and ran for 18 months which, for a direct response ad, is unheard of.

So that was the most, you know, memorable, but it was typical of, you know, an edgy, humorous, but ultimately, you know, very effective set of campaigns we ran to really differentiate by personality as much as by price point and value proposition.

Ray: Was this the time where Ameritrade started to get a lot of competitors as well? I mean, that whole space got pretty, pretty competitive overtime, then.

Peter: Yeah. It was pretty competitive even then. I mean, e-Trade was the most direct head to head and they were spending like drunken sailors. But you had, you know, a number of others. Some of them had more aggressive price points even. We were eight bucks a trade. There were seven bucks, five bucks, and there was even a company that was doing free-trades as long as you kept the balance. So there was no end of competition. That was even just in the, you know, self-directed online space, not to mention from the Schwabs and the Merrills and everybody else. So it was a highly contested space right from the get-go.

Ray: Very interesting. So what happened after Ameritrade?

Peter: Well, so I spent, you know, a couple three really interesting years with great growth, built a, you know, marketing thing from nothing, built a customer management function. You know, I really felt we’d made a great deal of progress but, you know, a few things made it clear that that wouldn’t be the place to stay forever, one of which was my life at that time hated Omaha. So it was clearly work to be there forever, and I had young kids and wanted to get them settled in some place where I could let them grow up and not put them through the molt of the moose I had already done thus far. And, you know, while things were going well at the company, I didn’t see much headroom for myself personally there.

So between one thing and another, it felt like the right time to reset, and that’s when we made what, you know, might indeed look like another sort of funny left turn into B2B technology in a form of a company that was initially called and then it rebranded to TruSecure and that was later acquired by Verizon. But, you know, as I was looking to leave Ameritrade, I was kind of viewed by the world to two different lenses. One was, you know, digital guy and, you know, Ameritrade was one of the more visible, you know, digital players. And I was also viewed as kind of financial guy. So, you know, I got phone calls from folks like Merrill Lynch, places like, Waterly.

And this company that I ended up joining was, you know, an interesting one in that it had been kind of the underwriters’ laboratory for security products, testing and certifying firewalls and encryption software and so forth, and had a very respected but, you know, kind of quiet think-tanky role in that world but had found a whole new growth vector in providing security certification services to corporate environments. So coming into Slippery Rock Bank and doing a full assessment, fixing what need to be fixed, and then putting them on a, you know, security health check-up plan and certifying. Slippery Rock Bank is TruSecure certified and will guarantee they don’t get hacked or will write a check for a million bucks.

So at the time, they said, you know, “Hey, let’s bring on a big marketing guy and we’ll go public, build a war chest and blow it out with a, you know, big marketing campaign, build a brand, and so forth. And I saw, in this company, an opportunity to be both a good housekeeping seals approval for security from a consumer perspective where e-commerce was growing like mad, but security, at the time, even then, was, you know, the big concern. While on the other side, having a B2B business, selling the security services to those organizations that wanted to display that good housekeeping seal. So I joined with that notion.

And then what happened is, April of 2000, the tech meltdown so, therefore, no IPO, no war chest, and the agenda suddenly shifted from, you know, build this broad consumer brands to very thrifty B2B legion in the enterprise technology. And, you know, that was not a gig I had done. You know, truth be told, I probably wasn’t the perfect choice for that particular gig.

So what then, you know, followed was some very painful learning and adjustment as I, you know, figured out how to do that job. And, yeah, it wasn’t always the most fun environment. We had a board of VC investors who’ve been in the company way too long and thought we’re a bunch of bumbling idiots and so there was kind of a tensed dynamic in some of those settings. So I had to very quickly figure out, “Okay, how do you do, you know, email marketing and webinars and how do you use PR as your primary brand-building device and a lot of product management to, you know, develop scalable web-based interfaces for what have been a very hands-on consultative service?”

So we made great progress and, you know, got more sort of press and notoriety that a company that size deserved, you know, good growth and revenue and so forth. But after a few years, you know, I started to feel that, at that point in my life, the 80-20 of comfort zone versus stretch was just off, you know, and there was too much that I had learned over the years that I wasn’t bringing to bear in my daily job and wasn’t leveraging that, you know, I wanted to get back to something I felt a little bit more like a sweet spot and frankly, you know, a little bit broader stage. You know, I do enjoy the small company entrepreneurial thing but I was craving in getting back to a place that had a little bit more [inaudible 00:49:55], a little bit more impact, more resource at their disposal. So that’s what took me to Capital One.

Ray: Very interesting. We haven’t finished the entirety of your career but, I mean, I look back on all the things that you’ve talked about, surprisingly…it looks like you…and you went to Harvard, you went to Dartmouth, you’ve had a great job coming out of school, you know, even though you changed from industry to industry and from company to company. Like it all had some good logic behind it. But, I mean, were there any moments where you like just screwed up [inaudible 00:50:27] or things didn’t work out? Because you do look a little perfect on paper. Like were there moments and things didn’t work out?

Peter: Yeah. I don’t think there’s any angle from which I look perfect, but, yeah, I would say, you know, TruSecure was a huge period of [inaudible 00:50:44] and doubts where it became abundantly clear that the game had changed and that it was not changing in a way that, you know, favored my skills and experience. That was definitely a dark moment in that board wasn’t too happy with me. I had to do some fast learning. I had brought on a big consumer agency anticipation of, you know, plan A. And so there are a number of things that had to be sort of unwound and reset. And at that, there, thinking, “Wow, let’s list the number of places I could’ve been.” But here I am, you know, perhaps aggressively winding back the clock of my career every day that I’m here. So even though I look back on it and there was a lot of great learning, at the time, it wasn’t always a lot of fun.

Ray: I’m gonna just sort of quickly switch to the personal side. I mean, throughout the journey that you’ve had, you accomplished a lot, you know, in a very short period of time. But did you ever finally had to make sacrifices personally to help you move forward on the professional side or even vice versa?

Peter: Yeah. The whole work-life balance thing is a really interesting one. Yeah, it’s something that I’ve always had very much consciously on my mind. Even early days at General Mills, yeah, there were clearly people who were burning the midnight oil in a way that I didn’t and chose not to. You know, I had my first child right about then. You know, you could do some correlating in those early days to the people who were there till, you know, 11:00 every night and the ones who tended to get promoted a little bit earlier. And, yeah, so there were points along the way where I said, “Okay. I’m gonna be, you know, mindfully making choices between maxing out absolute, you know, career progress with feeling good about how I’m choosing, you know, where and how I spend my time.”

And, yeah, the course of some of the career moves we have discussed, we’ve talked about moving from Minneapolis to Denver to Omaha to then Washington, D.C. And that put a strain on my family. And my poor daughter, by the time she hit sixth grade, she’d been into five grammar schools. And, you know, I had to hit each and every one of those sort of inflection points, make a decision that’s worth it, what’s the cause, what’s gonna be the impact to other people. But then having landed in Washington, D.C., that was a point which I said, “Okay, I’m not gonna ask anybody to do this again.” And this is where I’m gonna say, you know, continuity, stability for the kids is gonna come before maximizing my career opportunities.

So, you know, what then followed for, I don’t know, 15 or so years was a lot of really interesting phone calls. And every now and then, I would torture myself and, you know, answer one and explore it and then very painfully say, “Wow, I would get my ITs to do this job. However, I would not go so far as to ask my kids to move or, you know, would not see my kids only on weekends because I’m traveling back and forth from wherever, Chicago or L.A.”

So for me, there were, you know, clear moments where I asked a little bit more from my family and there were moments where I said I’m gonna sort of throttle back a bit on personal ambition and, you know, still feel great about what I’m doing but know that I’m narrowing my choice in order to protect a little bit of family sanity.

Ray: I imagine it’s probably evolved over time, but how did you manage travel and, you know, making sure you were still spending time with family and all of that? Did you have a certain routine or tactics that you use to sort of set rules on here’s family time and here’s work time?

Peter: Yeah. I guess I can’t say I had any really clever rules because there’s something to sort of…at least in my roles, there wasn’t a steady predictability to, you know, every Wednesday, I go meet with the agency, or every week, every month, there’s, you know, some bit of necessary travel. But it was more I just try and think, you know, really hard about, “Do I need to be there? Can I accomplish it in another way? What’s the value of what I’m doing? You know, this conference might be fun to do.”

So I put through this filter of the value by being there physically versus what’s it gonna cost, not just from a family perspective, but, you know, every trip you take means you’re not with your team back at the home office and, you know, that has a form of cost, too. So, you know, I just try to make sure that every time I jump on a plane, it was for a clear and obvious benefit that couldn’t be achieved some other way.

Ray: Through your career, did you ever have a coach or some mentors that helped you throughout the way?

Peter: You know, it’s funny, I’ve never been a good one for having formal mentorships. I have had bosses that I’ve learned a ton from. I spent, gosh, probably close to a decade working for a guy named Bill McDonald at Capital One who I learned, you know, volumes from, more than I can probably put my finger on. I had a coach, let me think, yes, I’ve had a coach on a couple of occasions generally around kind of inflection points.

You know, there’s a point of Capital One where the scope and scale and complexity of my role more than doubled overnight. And at that point, I said, you know, “Let me work with a coach just to help me take on the sort of next level sort of challenge.” I brought in someone from the, I think it’s David Allen, getting-things-done world to say, “All right, help get me set up with a system for, you know, tracking test and keeping on top of things because, you know, I’ve never been a particularly systematic, organized process sort of guy.” So I just said, “Hey, bring me in a template and how do I manage all this stuff?”

So those were both helpful at the time. And then as I joined Hershey, I worked in a very sort of light, once-a-month sort of way with a coach, you know, with a bit of a focus on interacting with the board which was something I had not done quite as much or at least not, you know, with that size of company. So I found both helpful. But one of the things that I sort of get myself low marks for as I look back is not having done more to formalize, you know, mentorships. I admire people who have what they call their personal board of directors that you actually call by name and leverage and, you know, put to work for and so forth. So that’s one of those, you know, advice I would give under “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Ray: Over the years, though, have you developed any particular rituals? Do you go to the gym in the morning, meditate, run for a meeting, or any of that stuff?

Peter: I’m probably more opportunistic just because, you know, schedules are what they are. So, you know, I do try to get to the gym when I can, learn to meditate and all those things I keep intending to do. So, you know, [inaudible 00:58:55] retirement project when I don’t need it. But, no, I’m not high on sort of set routines and rituals but I’d say getting to the gym has been a big part of it. A few years ago, I took up boxing, weirdly, and that’s been a lot of fun because, you know, it’s surprisingly challenging learning something new and a great way to burn off some stress.

Ray: Yeah. It’s my Friday night activity, actually. I’m curious, and I know that we don’t have much time left, but at Capital One, I mean, that seemed like a place where you spent the majority of…or the longest time you spent at any company. I guess, what was the experience like there and, I guess, what I ended up leading you to explore something else and, you know, getting the role at Hershey?

Peter: You know, I mentioned earlier that I’ve been someone who is always seeking sort of fresh challenges and new things to sink my teeth into and that was a bit of why I had been so many different places, which I was glad to hear recruiters now call the “mosaic experience” which sounds so much better than the kind of scattered “schizophrenic experience.” But, you know, one reason I stayed at Capital One so long is that, you know, with a still bold founder in place who was ready to set his sights on one improbable goal after the next, it was just a never-ending series of really exciting, daunting challenges.

You know, I had the opportunity to be kind of at the tip of the spear if the brand move from, you know, mostly subprime-oriented credit card into home loans, into auto loans, into, you know, small business cards and lending, and then the really crazy move into banking and the really fascinating challenge of how do you integrate a unique butterfly called ING Direct. So really just, you know, every year was a new set of things to learn and do and take on. And as the company grew, you know, my roles expanded. So I spent 12 fantastic years learning and growing and taking on those challenges.

I guess, for me, you know, I reached the point where the 12 years was starting to feel like 12 years and I was starting to feel as though there just wasn’t much more for me to do at the company. I had, you know, frankly gone as far as I could go just given the nature of the roles in the company. The people that run the businesses just have a very different DNA and skillset than I do so there wasn’t, you know, opportunities to move laterally to then create more upward opportunities.

So, you know, it just felt like a natural appropriate time to think about, you know, other pastures. And so as I was, you know, in that mode or I was exploring some very, very different opportunities, just seem, I guess, across very different sectors from hospitality, to communications, to financial services, and among them, Hershey. So that’s what led me to Hershey. And, you know, what took me there was a combination of things. One, you know, these wonderfully iconic brands that are so beloved. And after years of working with, you know, great products, but let’s face it, nobody loves their checking account with passion. Nobody write codes to the credit card, but my guess, people are head over heels in love with their research [inaudible 01:02:55].

So great stuff to work with, and the company had a great desire to putting a new level of creativity to those brands and their campaigns and a great desire to really transform from what had been a predominantly TV-centric model to a much more multi-channel digital socially-infused data-driven model. And then in addition, a great desire to expand, you know, organically into acquisition into new categories in their geographies. So, you know, that’s what took me there.

And, you know, you’re correct to call it a little bit of an unusual shift to go, you know, back from financial services to packaged goods both from a perspective that, you know, I’ve been in financials for 12 years and then another 3 before that. But also from their perspective, it’s pretty unusual to bring a senior person on from another industry. CPGs tend to hire from within the CPGs. So it was, you know, a testament to their desire to really shake things up and try a different way that they did do something as crazy as bringing on someone from financial services.

Ray: I’ve got a couple of quick questions left. I mean, if you were to give advice to your 25, 30-year-old self looking back over the years, what would that be? What would be some helpful pointers?

Peter: You know, and I think it would be a different advice for the 25-year-old and the 30-year-old. And I think for the 25-year-old, as we touched on earlier, I might say, you know, “Be wary of being too impatient. Don’t expect too much too soon. You know, be willing to dig in and if you have your sight set on something, you know, have a little bit of patience in working towards it.”

The 30-year-old, I might encourage to, you know, “This is the time to be bold. You know, you’ve got some good experience under your belt. You know what you’re doing. You’ve got some expertise but, you know, you’re young enough that you can swing it for the fences.” So whether that means being bold, and wherever you are, you know, think big, take risks, push the envelope, or if that means, you know, jumping into something that feels, you know, nobody’s making and the sweaty palms kind of opportunity, you know, that will be a time to don’t overly self-edit and don’t play it too safe.

Ray: That’s good advice. What do you still have left to accomplish? I mean, you’ve done a ton of things. You’ve probably worked in more industries than most people do in five lifetimes. You know, what’s still left?

Peter: Well, you know, that’s the exact reason why I decided to give myself, you know, a few months of breathing room to sit back and take stock and really reflect on exactly that. And, you know, I’ve find myself torn and intrigued with both taking on another juicy, challenging, multi-faceted CMO kinda job to doing something wildly different, whether that be a startup, whether that be…you know, I’ve talked with a couple of PE firms about being, you know, portfolio marketing kind of coach, and I’ve got my wife encouraging me to, you know, hang out a shingle and do consulting and speaking and writing.

So, you know, I’m in the midst of that process, and I have to say I’ve got conversations going on across the whole spectrum so we’ll see. I think I probably do have another, you know, CMO-type stint in me but remains to be seen. But, you know, at this point, too, you know, it’s what do I left to prove? I don’t feel as though I, you know, owe it to myself to prove one more thing that I can go do x. So it’s really, at this point, about how do I wanna spend this time and just get the most out of it.

Ray: What about on the personal bucket list side, are there things that you still wanna do like jump off an airplane or something?

Peter: Oh, yeah. Well, see, that’s where I have no worries about my self’s retirement. So, yes, my wife and I talk all the time about our bucket list. One is going to Antarctica. I just crossed off a bucket list of diving in Galapagos, but I may wanna try diving in the Antarctic just, you know, to be really crazy. We’ve got lots of travel left to do. We hiked the Everest trail a couple of years ago. I wanna do another wacky thing like that again. You know, I wanna learn a language. I wanna take up a musical instrument again. So I’ll get my Spanish back into shape, maybe. So lots of things on the list to do once there’s a little bit more time.

Ray: Okay, cool. I’m just gonna end up with one final question. What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you but would find surprising if they did find out?

Peter: Well, let’s see. We’ve probably talked about a couple of them already. You know, we’ve talked about I was a one-time budding French horn player. We’ve talked about I become a weirdly middle-age boxer. I guess one might be that in my next life, I would wish to be a sitcom producer. Every now and then, I, you know, look at interviews or, you know, read about people who are producing, you know, whatever movies, films. It takes me back to my ICM days and makes me think, “Yes. You know, I love what I’ve done, but next time around, maybe I’ll be, you know, hunkered around some writers’ room, spit-falling ideas for, you know, what Larry David should do next.” So that would be the next lifetime.

Ray: Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of months from now, you’re doing something with Ari Emanuel on the West Coast with producing a sitcom or something. So your track record, the mosaic, helps.

Peter: As long as it’s not bringing his coffee, then we’re good.

Ray: Yeah, yeah, awesome. Peter, really, really appreciate this, and you know, it’s finally good to put some logic behind this, this mosaic career that you have but…

Peter: It does require a little explanation a little bit.

Ray: But, no, really, really appreciate it and, you know, if there’s anything [inaudible 01:10:04], happy to help. But thank you again.

Daniel: Did you enjoy that interview? If so, it would mean a lot to us if you visited and subscribe, and we’ll send the next interview straight to your inbox. Have questions, feedback, or an idea for another guest, email us at Thanks so much for listening.