The Magic of Machuzick

by Jeff Prouty
The Prouty Project had the exciting opportunity to work with John Machuzick, recently retired as the President of “Brands on the Go,” a $2 billion piece of General Mills The Prouty Project heard rave reviews about John as a leader from many folks in the world of General Mills. Humble, entrepreneurial, and courageous were a few of the adjectives.

John and Jeff had a chance to sit down and talk about his 9-year run as President. From taking over a turnaround situation in 2003 to winning the Eagle (General Mills’ top divisional award) four years in a row, John’s path to success is fascinating.

Enjoy some excerpts from the “magic of Machuzick:”

Brooks Robinson Without a Bat:

John played baseball for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, with visions of playing in the big leagues someday. A stellar infielder, John’s hitting was not quite good enough to make it into the “bigs.” So he headed to General Mills, in a sales position, right out of college. The beginnings of an exciting 35-year career.

Southern California Calling:

John became the youngest Regional Manager (age 29) in the history of the company, taking a promotion to head up their Southern California sales region. An “underperforming region” as John described it. But he and the team turned it around with a simple straightforward mantra: “Focus, talk to customers, make things happen.” And along the way, he got his MBA at Pepperdine.

The Call to Headquarters:

In the early 90s, John was invited to come to headquarters to lead “Consumer Food Sales Strategic Planning.” As someone said to him, “Strategic planning? Strategic planning and sales aren’t usually used in the same sentence.” John immersed himself in the opportunity, taking 5 people offsite for 5 days to “think strategically.” The outcome of the offsite: A new business unit, Centralized Customer Solutions, which ramped up quickly, hiring 120 people in the first 90 days and revolutionizing the General Mills service advantage with customers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines:

Along the way, John and his team negotiated the first NASCAR contract for General Mills. Initially looking for a way to build cereal sales in the southeast United States, the team landed on NASCAR. Voila. Cereal sales increased nicely and the share grew in the Southeast. John said they learned a lot with their initial foray into NASCAR, made plenty of mistakes early on and didn’t win many races, but had the courage to “keep trying” and it worked.

$1.8 Billion Opportunity:

At the age of 45, John took over the $1.8 billion “Bakeries and Food Services” Division. This division, with pieces of General Mills and Pillsbury patched together, was laced with challenge and opportunity. The Pillsbury segment was built on lots of acquisitions. General Mills culture, built around teamwork, clashed head on with Pillsbury’s culture, built around independence / autonomy. John said, “Game on.”

This Culture Stinks:

The culture scores in the division were poor; only 40% positive. The plants were running at low utilization. There was no unifying vision for the division – 5,500 products, 40 different categories, 35 plants. As one of the General Mills Vice Chairmen told John, “Fix it.” John’s early thinking: “We need some new players on the leadership team, we need a vision, and it’s going to take some time, be patient.”

Stabilize, Fix, Win, Thrive:

John took his new team offsite, shared his point of view, and then said “Let’s just sit and talk about it, no agenda.” (A “wallow,” as Jack Welch used to call it.) People started admitting, rather than denying, the challenges in the division. Ultimately, the team created its “Plan to Win,” building on the concepts of “stabilize, fix, win, thrive.”


One evening, John and his wife, Cindi (both avid movie goers), were watching the movie, Seabiscuit. The story of a broken-down horse, that no one believed in. John said, “That’s our division.” So he rented a theatre in downtown Minneapolis, showed the entire team the movie, and closed the evening by saying, “Go home, think about this movie, just think about it.”

Beginning to Believe:

With the “Plan to Win” in place, slowly but surely, people started to believe. Over 3-6 months, people started to talk. John decided that “We need to celebrate every win.” Every week, donuts / bagels, just share what’s happening and talk about the wins.

Painful Changes:

John was honest with people, “There are going to be painful changes along the way.” A majority of the plants were closed, SKUs were reduced dramatically (more than half were gone), the categories and segments in which they competed were also winnowed significantly to those where they could win. And, they started focusing on “profit” rather than “sales.” One big – and visible move – was to sell off a $200 million piece of business, which freed up much time to do other more important (and more profitable) work. As John said, “I knew that we’d get it fixed, but I didn’t know exactly how.” Ultimately, John turned over nearly 60% of the people in the division.

Support, Up the Line:

Ken Powell, now CEO of General Mills, was John’s boss in the early going. Ken, as a leader, gave John ideas to consider, and gave him the freedom / support to make the tough choices he needed to make. With the support from above and a continually improving leadership team, the momentum continued. “Win or lose,” Ken was with him. (As opposed to many leaders who would say, “I’m with you, win or tie.”)


Brands on the Go has become a “destination division,” at General Mills, a place where people want to go. A place for college graduates to start their careers. Entrepreneurial. Freedom to do things. Fast moving. Creative. Take a risk. (Sounds like a NASCAR driver.)

Rewinding the Clock:

I asked John if, in hindsight, he would have done anything different. “I might have moved even faster. I knew the ‘ending of the movie’ if I didn’t make changes. I had a pit in my stomach many times along the way.”

The Last Hurrah:

At his last National Sales Meeting before retiring, John was invited to the stage, where 500 General Mills leaders serenaded him with their version of “My Way.” “They made me cry,” said John. John has touched many hearts along the way, and mentored many up and coming players at General Mills.

For the Next Generation of Leaders:

I asked John for his bullet-point wisdom for the kids (like his son, Mark, who is a junior at Vanderbilt) who will soon be joining the workforce:

  • Be yourself.
  • Always look to learn from everyone.
  • Build relationships – familiarity and trust are extremely important.
  • Do the right thing – you’ll know in your gut.
  • Work hard, do the best you can, stay focused.
  • Don’t get distracted by stuff you can’t control – again, stay focused.
  • Don’t “craft the message,” just tell the truth.
  • Communicate frequently.
  • Get beyond the facts, tap into the hearts.

Your Mom and Dad:

The former Editor of CFO Magazine asked everyone he interviewed, “What did you learn from your Mom and Dad?” John, what did you learn? “From Mom, its OK not to be the center of attention, quiet, unassuming. From Dad, never give up, ever. Be hungry to do things. Get the most out of your talent. I took their advice. I was the oldest child, and the first one in our extended family to go to college.”

The Machuzick Mancave:

In his free time, John loves to collect sports memorabilia, including his 400+ signed baseballs. His greatest possession, the first baseball he ever received. His dad caught a homerun baseball hit by Johnny Callison, Philadelphia Phillies, in August 1963. Dad caught the ball, gave it to his 8-year old son, and the “Machuzick mancave memories” got their start.

John, you clearly “hit a homerun” in your Brands on the Go leadership and I wish you the best in your retirement. Keep sharing your wisdom.
Jeff Prouty founded the Prouty Project in 1987 after seven years with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Minneapolis and New York City. He specializes in working with senior management teams and boards of directors on strategic planning and team issues.



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