Jackson Jeyanayagam isn’t your average CPG company man. The general manager of direct-to-consumer at The Clorox Co. comes from the digital world. After more than a decade on the agency side, he ran digital at Chipotle and was chief marketing officer of Boxed.com, an online wholesale retailing start-up, before Clorox came calling.

At Clorox, he oversees direct-to-consumer initiatives across the company’s stable of brands, including Brita, Burt’s Bees and Nutranext, a supplement company Clorox acquired in 2018. Jeyanayagam’s team makes brands like Burt’s easier for consumers to shop online, and he’s also incubating new ones, like Objective Wellness, a digital-first supplement brand targeted at Gen X.

In the middle of a global pandemic, Jeyanayagam is finding that there are distinct benefits that come with working for a giant global company — particularly one like Clorox, whose sanitizing products are in especially high demand right now. “They’re so good about communications and being calm — I’ve never seen anything like it at companies I’ve worked for,” said Jeyanayagam.

Still, being the designated DTC guy charged with accelerating the speed in which a 106-year-old business moves is not without its challenges. “Sometimes I have to be like my four-year-old and throw a tantrum, in a respectful way,” he told Beauty Inc.

Beauty Inc.: After a couple of years in a start-up environment, what attracted you to Clorox? It seems like most executives who have worked at a start-up might not want to go to a big corporate environment. In fact, in beauty, it seems like the opposite thing is happening.

J.J.: I actually think there’s a huge shift going the other way. People want stability now. We recruit people from start-ups and I hear this all the time: “Hey, I love start-ups, but I’m concerned about viability and a path to exit.” The IPO track is not proving well, and you’re starting to see some people come the other way. They’re thinking differently, especially about [big companies] that have acquired [digital-native] brands, or have an incubator.

I loved Boxed, but we had fund-raising issues, challenges with internal stuff — the classic dilemma with young, eager founders. They want to build a great business, but what’s the balance of keeping people you’ve had since starting from scratch and then bringing in people from the outside? I had to start thinking about what’s next. I always tell people not to judge an opportunity based on a logo, and there are reasons that CPGs are great training grounds for chief executive officers. I wanted to work for a ceo who I respect and admire.

WWD: What are your key goals at Clorox?

J.J.: In the short term, to build up capabilities and drive revenue, create sales and drive profit growth. I’m a very small percentage of the total size of Clorox — [I’m also] here to help educate people internally on the opportunity for DTC, how you can talk to the consumer directly, customize experiences and products. It’s challenging for a CPG selling to physical retail — it’s showing them the path and the playbook we’re creating.

WWD: You must be used to getting things done fast. How do you move quickly within a 106-year-old company?

J.J.: It’s not easy. I have to pick my battles and put my ego aside. Sometimes I just want things done faster because I know they can be. The challenge is always getting everyone on board — it’s the day-to-day work. The good thing is that at the very top — the other general managers on the retail side, marketing and research and development, they all get this is where we’re going. Sometimes I have to break things. I have to be like my four-year-old and throw a tantrum, in a respectful way, and make my case study verbally: “Here’s how I think we do things, here are the benefits and challenges.” Other times I have to bite my tongue.

WWD: What are some of the challenges of integrating a start-up like group into the greater organization?

J.J.: Some things are seemingly small, but they’re a very big deal, like making sure our team has laptops and can choose to have a PC or a Mac. We are a very PC, Microsoft-oriented company and I had a lot of talent coming in who were used to Mac. We had to have a few discussions. We’re transforming the way Clorox thinks about DTC and go-to-market, and everyone’s been open. Every discussion has its challenges, but this is what I signed up for. 

WWD: What effect will the pandemic have on the way larger CPG companies operate? Will companies like Clorox get more comfortable with working from home?

J.J.: My group is already flexible. Other teams work in the plant or manufacturing facility, and they need to be there. But it’s definitely shifting. We had a call about this this morning with the leadership team. Everyone is talking like, “Are we cool with this? Can we keep doing this?”

WWD: How do you think the pandemic will alter the DTC landscape?

J.J.: I’d argue that pre-COVID, it was easier to launch a company than ever before — it’s the scale that’s tough. The market’s perception [was already] changing [before the pandemic]. You have DTC companies that have gone public or were acquired in 2017-18 and they still aren’t profitable even though they were flooded with capital.

If we go into a recession, there will be less checks, less money, tighter terms. Founders with less experience will be more heavily scrutinized. You have to have a clear business [model] — the brand can’t sacrifice profit for growth. It used to be all about 300 percent growth, but now it’s more about, “OK, you’re growing at a nice clip, 25 to 50 percent, and showing a path to profitability.”

WWD: What do you make of some of the bad behavior we’ve been hearing about with start-up founders at companies like WeWork and Away? Especially in a global pandemic, does this make working at a start-up less palatable for potential employees?

J.J.: The broader theme is there is this urgency to get out there — speed-to-market is number one. That’s the start-up mentality and part of the DNA in general of an entrepreneur. But there are generational shifts. Gen Z are the kids of Gen X — they’re not going to sacrifice their lives, times with loved ones and friends for work.

WWD: How can big companies stop the brain-drain to start-ups and Indie brands? How can they attract young talent?

J.J.: CPG companies have to forget the idea that someone is going to be with the company 20 years. My dad thinks it’s crazy that I’ve worked for so many companies. The norm now is one-and-a-half to two years. But start-ups are notoriously horrible at succession planning, and CPG companies are good at that. I want to know how I’m growing, how I’m evolving — CPGs are good at showing that path. But now, it’s how do you move faster and how do you customize that path? That’s where they struggle. Be transparent with your high-performers and people who could be high-performers. Don’t hide behind a once-a-year review, and don’t make it about title or function — it’s, “What excites you?” and keep talking about what a path could look like.

WWD: What do you look for when you hire?

J.J.: I love transparency and authentic people. Empathy — if you’re empathetic with each other, you can have honest conversations with people. Sometimes nice cultures are the worst because there’s no honesty. Versatility — I love people who can play different roles. If things change, if we go into a recession, I need people who know they may have to shift. 

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