Many of us find our connection to the world through family, imagination, friends, or travel. James Seidl found his through language. Moving to the East Coast from his native Minnesota for college, he studied marketing and international business at American University, but also German and Spanish, being interested in languages as a means of connecting to other cultures. It was a prescient choice.
His career has taken him from the Peace Corps to reconstruction projects in countries still fresh from war; from El Salvador to Paraguay, Kosovo to Puerto Rico; from financial services to brand marketing and digital commerce. Despite the vicissitudes, his path has always been informed by callings higher than the 9-to-5, with an explicit focus on service. We sat down with James to talk about his career so far, the changes that excite him, and how he integrates his passions with his work.
Your professional career really started with the Peace Corps. That must have been an incredible experience?
They say it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love, and that couldn’t be truer—I signed up for two years and extended to three then as a technical trainer, both in El Salvador and Paraguay. I was in El Salvador in the late ’90s, in the middle of massive decentralization, with the first volunteer class with this program at the time, which was a democratization project that touched all aspects of the community—schools, civic education, environmental activities, teaching English, living with a local family. We were met with skepticism at the time, but the community leaders were incredibly supportive.
I was placed in a community that was part of the FMLN (the leftist political party), and the mayor and his team were truly visionary and collaborative in working to do what was best for the community. I really just went deep into the mission, and as a leader I go back all the time to the skills I learned there, most notably on how to listen.
If you’ve spent three years working in Central and South America, in these completely immersive experiences where it’s so much bigger than a “job,” where do you go next?
Kosovo, actually, with CHF [Cooperative Housing Foundation, rebranded as Global Communities in 2012]. It was a post-war reconstruction business development project, and I went in 2000, right on the heels of the war. Our job was to help get small and medium-sized businesses back on their feet, and the first step is the construction sector.
That was my first general manager–like experience. It was out of necessity, as my director gave me a lot of autonomy while he was taking care of other business. It was a mix of everything: biz dev, consulting, training and development, business planning, loans, bid and tender programs. I had to lead the staff, do performance evaluations, increase our client base, manage IT and programmatic activity, all the way through planning for disaster recovery should we need to get out of the country. You’re just figuring it out as you go.
My first week there, a vehicle fleet was stuck at the border, held by a German rep at the UN. I got on the phone and, because I had studied German, I was able to talk to him and get the vehicles through. Language broke down barriers—it can make such a difference, and it’s opened up so much for me—it’s really what started my connection to giving back.
What was it like transitioning back into the “regular” world?
I studied marketing, and I’ve always loved it, and I came back to Minnesota and started to work in financial services. But it was too boring—I wanted something faster and more challenging. I had applied before Kosovo to work with Procter & Gamble and they called and offered me a job in Puerto Rico. I think P&G still is one of the best companies for marketing, and I was happy to go. Multicultural marketing was just starting to become a thing, and my first assignment was on exports, working on brands that were trying to gain share in the US Hispanic market like Crest Hispanic—do you have any idea how much share Colgate has in Latin America!? It gave me access to P&G’s resources, but I learned how to be an underdog and a fighter.
I fell in love with the brands, and how every brand has experiences they create and treasure. And that continues to be crucial for me today at McCormick. Every experience has been a journey of continual learning, and my McCormick position has provided so many opportunities to do this. We’re creating a whole new rule book for marketing, not just at McCormick but in the industry with digital commerce. There’s no one success model. It’s a rich, fertile ground for testing and learning and creating new capabilities, then creating the people organization behind that to do the work. In the past two years, we have made investments in people and digital commerce capabilities that are now helping accelerate our growth in online channels—in some cases 2x–3x greater than before, and ahead of category growth. It’s strategic from a growth standpoint and, both for me and the organization, it’s all about learning.
Tell me a little more about the role at McCormick and how that’s evolving under the current circumstances.
So, this role is newly created, and part of the team was previously in the sales function. We were also going through a change management program about growth behaviors, and my team was picked as a pilot for the training. It’s a top-notch program, and I have the freedom and the language construct to be able to talk about what we’re doing with everyone in the building.
One of the things I’ve been challenged internally to do is to create a DTC platform that can fuel growth. As a company, like many brands, we want to foster direct relationships with our consumers, and this has been a great learning platform for that, giving us insights we haven’t had previously. It’s so refreshing—it’s giving me the reins and the opportunity to run with it and fail a little bit. And, I did my homework, meeting with consultants and researching different models, to learn about various approaches, successes, and failures. I’m fortunate that as a company we have the tolerance, but also the passion and ambition, to learn and fail fast, then see what we’re going to do next to create the iterative process.
If you go back a few months, pre-COVID grocery, in general, was underdeveloped in online channels. We had a household penetration issue that was not specific to us; people just weren’t buying as many groceries online. Leadership saw it was going to happen and wanted to get ahead of it in terms of investment and people.
Fast-forward to today: shopping and consumption habits are changing. People are cooking at home more, and I think that’s going to stay. With social distancing in general, e-comm has its advantage through pure play, omnichannel, click and collect, and so forth. We are meeting people where they are. That’s about search, where we position our brands and products to show up where people are shopping, trying to help in those moments, and to really think about the future to come out stronger.
I keep coming back to your early years, to your experience in these countries that were torn apart, and the transition to the corporate world. How do you align the two, your passion for service, and your role in brand marketing and digital commerce?
It starts with yourself, knowing who you are and what’s important. Service is one of my key beliefs, and I’ve learned that I can do it wherever I am to make a positive difference. Where I am now is a long way from rolling up your sleeves and fighting for civil rights, or helping a small business get off the ground with access to credit. They are, and feel like, very different efforts. But, I take a lot of pride in the people on my teams and the investment we make in them and creating a positive, inclusive culture. It’s not only about the work—it’s the culture we create, the language we use, the perspectives we bring.
I also do dedicate non-business time to service, and you can do that from wherever you are. I surround myself with what I call my own personal board of directors, mentors from different areas of my life who are trailblazers and leaders and who enable me to tap into different perspectives and continue to grow. In the mid-’90s I used to volunteer with the Aliveness Project in Minnesota, working with HIV and AIDS patients, providing medical services and meals. In Baltimore, I’ve discovered a similar organization called Moveable Feast. Food is medicine, and actually that has a lot to do with my day job. I find the mission really inspiring, and I have brought my team, friends, and family in as volunteers to support it. In many ways, they’re in foodservice, and I’ve recently joined their board.