Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2005Kellogg School of Management
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  Bob Eckert
  Photo courtesy of Mattel Inc.
Bob Eckert '77

For Mattel CEO Bob Eckert, service to Kellogg and community is no game

by Ed Finkel

Bob Eckert says he was raised by classic "Greatest Generation" parents. His father, a World War II veteran who became a dentist, was active in his church, helped develop the local YMCA and belonged to the Masonic lodge.

"Those were people who were very community- and civic-minded. We used to talk about sharing your time, your talent and your treasures for the benefit of others," Eckert says. "I was raised with a belief that we are very fortunate. Not only were we born in America, but we were born, certainly, on the other side of being poverty stricken."

Since graduating from the Kellogg School in 1977, Eckert says he has had further good fortune to work for two companies that share similar values: Kraft Foods, where he rose through the ranks to president and CEO, and Mattel, where he has been CEO since 2000. His situation has allowed him to engage in various philanthropic efforts, including lending time and talent to his B-school alma mater.

"Kraft and Mattel are both very involved in their local communities and share a culture of giving back," Eckert says. "We earn a profit, and we've developed people, and we should use those things for the benefit of the community, not just our shareholders."

The logistics of giving back to the Kellogg School were a bit simpler during Eckert's 23 years at Kraft, headquartered in the Chicago suburbs, than at Mattel, based in the Los Angeles area. He delivered guest lectures to marketing classes at least annually and became part of the Dean's Advisory Board, which he describes as "a fabulous group" ... "a who's who of the business community in Chicago."

Eckert also has spoken at Kellogg commencement and during its Pre-term orientation. "I try to show up any time I can," he says. "I have found students receptive to wanting to hear the stories and have an opportunity to chit-chat with us. All it takes is a little of my time. That's a pretty small investment."

Eckert is "particularly proud" of two investments by Mattel, which supports both the Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California-Los Angeles and the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, launched by an HIV-positive employee, for which the company has helped raise more than $20 million in 12 years.

At Kraft, Eckert's philanthropic involvement changed as he rose from president of Madison, Wis.-based Oscar Mayer Foods, which "supported many of the civic institutions in Madison," to group vice president and then CEO of the corporation, which gives to cultural institutions such as Chicago's Lyric Opera and Art Institute.

"I learned community service and the importance of business in helping to build community," Eckert says of that array of experiences.

Kellogg students who have spoken with Eckert have heard stories about his years at Kraft, which he says "was publicly described as the sleeping giant of the food industry" when he joined in 1977. Recognition of this stagnation by the firm's senior management opened up opportunities for Eckert and his fellow MBAs, among the first managers recruited aggressively from business schools. By the time the company was sold to Philip Morris in the late 1980s, "I don't think anybody would have described Kraft as the food industry's sleeping giant," he says. "I think it was the undisputed leader."

During the 1990s, his experience at Oscar Mayer gave him "the opportunity to work in an autonomous unit, physically away from headquarters," while Eckert's role as group vice president brought experience working across areas such as sales, technology and operations that helped him broaden his perspective and prepared him to become CEO.

Upon arriving at Mattel, Eckert faced a different challenge: a turnaround situation at a long-successful company deflated due to the failed acquisition of an educational software firm. Mattel's value in 2000 was 75 percent below its peak and continuing to decline, but its value has doubled in the past four years.

"The synergies we anticipated never panned out," Eckert says of the acquisition. "We're back on track now, generating very positive levels of cash flow and market share."

Continue to Jeffery Vender '98

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©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University