When Curiosity Leads to the Top
Marketing executive Kurt T. Schmidt, ’90 (XP-59), says remaining open to possibility paved the way for a career journey he could’ve never imagined—including 14 years abroad.
- April 17, 2023
Kurt T. Schmidt, ’90 (XP-59), has charted a storied career that has taken him all over the world.
Long before he became the accomplished leader in marketing and management he is today, he studied chemistry at the US Naval Academy and spent five years as a naval officer aboard a nuclear submarine. His marketing career began inauspiciously at the end of his tour. After a day of interviews for engineering roles, he sat down with a recruiter for a marketing role at Kraft Foods. The interviewer asked him what he knew about marketing.
“I said, ‘What is that, like sales or something?’”
And yet, Schmidt, ever curious to learn new things, landed and accepted the job at Kraft headquarters, two miles from where he grew up in Chicago.
Schmidt, a member of the steering committee for Booth’s Kilts Center, saw his career as an opportunity to follow his sense of adventure and intellectual curiosity. In the early days, he raised his hand for projects that others avoided.
When he joined Kraft in the 1980s, the company was shifting its focus from sales to marketing, with a growing emphasis on data. Schmidt volunteered to join a new analytics team for Kraft’s first exploration of using data in pricing, sales, and revenue to generate growth.
“A lot of marketing people thought it would ruin their careers,” he recalls. But it was a prescient move that led to the formation of Kraft’s direct profitability sales strategy, which changed how the company developed its product categories. It also led to a promotion for Schmidt on another strategic project and wider business opportunities down the road.
While at Kraft, Schmidt enrolled in the Executive MBA Program. Immersed in marketing at work, he wanted the rigor of a Booth education to understand how marketing functions in concert with other aspects of the business that he wasn’t exposed to every day, such as financing, operations strategy, and operations analysis. One of his most influential courses covered the international political economy, which spurred him to pursue an international career.
“I’d been all over with the Navy,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m not ready to live in Chicago for the next 30 years. I’ve got to get the international experience.’”
With the formation of the European Union and the collapse of trade barriers in the early 1990s, companies no longer needed factories in every country. This allowed Schmidt, a few years out from Booth, to land a role in Kraft’s new European headquarters. The timing was perfect—he had met his German-born wife, Kathrin, at a company seminar, increasing his desire to work overseas. In charge of grocery products marketing, he created a new Europe-wide marketing strategy.
Schmidt liked strategy work, but he was eager to take on a general management role in consumer products. In his first role of this kind, he led Kraft’s food division in Germany, a margin-driven market requiring innovative negotiation and pricing. He also served as area director of the Australasia region, where he led the company through public relations and marketing headwinds stemming from public resentment—fanned by a competitor—of Kraft’s parent company, Philip Morris.
Schmidt mined the company’s long history as a treasured brand in Australia to restore Kraft’s place in popular culture. Within a year, market share had risen above previous levels.
“We faced the issue head on. We didn’t try to duck it,” he says. “We had to go back and renew our understanding of how we got to where we got to.”
Schmidt was later recruited to Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company Novartis, where he also led a turnaround and brand refresh of Gerber Products as CEO. Gerber’s research revealed that 30 percent of American toddlers never ate vegetables and 25 percent never had fruit. The resulting Start Healthy, Stay Healthy campaign used a “short, sharp, shock” approach, launching a series of provocative ads in national publications. One depicted a toddler holding french fries with the caption: “The No. 1 vegetable among American toddlers.” The campaign became Gerber’s new reason for being, paving the way for healthy product lines such as Gerber Graduates.
“It exploded,” Schmidt recalls. “That was the regenesis of the whole company.”
“What I tell the students is: don’t plan your life out to the nth degree. Because if I had done that ... I would never have taken the leap from the executive committee of the world’s largest food company to run a startup and take it public.”
Schmidt’s history of impact at major brands continued to open one opportunity after another. After Gerber was acquired by Nestlé, the Switzerland-based food and beverage company named him global head of nutrition international. He also served on Nestlé’s executive committee, where he learned the ins and outs of its Purina subsidiary and became well versed in the pet food business.
This experience led to a call from a headhunter, prompting a career first: taking a startup public. He led Blue Buffalo, a small natural pet foods brand based in Wilton, Connecticut, through its IPO, and General Mills eventually bought the company for $8.1 billion. Previously, the pet food business had been dominated by four big players since World War II.
Blue Buffalo is emblematic of one of the big changes Schmidt has seen in marketing over the past 40 years: the emergence of disruptive brands. Small players with unique brand propositions can bypass retailers and big media to reach customers, he says.
Another big change has happened in data.
“When I grew up in marketing, you had to use statistical analysis. It was grunt work,” he says. “Today we’ve got A.I.” Information-synthesizing tools are advancing so rapidly that it’s hard to predict what will be possible even five years from now—and what the rules of the road will be, he adds.
Schmidt recently retired after two years as CEO of Cronos Group, a Toronto-based biotech company that uses fermentation to produce rare cannabinoids at scale. He serves on the board of Campbell Soup Company and advises private equity firms. He pays it forward at Booth by giving talks on the lessons he’s learned throughout his career and offering one-on-one mentoring to students and recent alumni.
His main advice? Stay open to the possibilities.
“What I tell the students is: don’t plan your life out to the nth degree,” he says. “Because if I had done that, I would have never gone to Europe. No way. I wouldn’t have taken the leap to Novartis. And I would never have taken the leap from the executive committee of the world’s largest food company to run a startup and take it public.”
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