For Greg Johnson, 2020 was a momentous year on his professional journey.
Executive Vice President and General Manager of Intuit’s Consumer Group, Johnson was part of the largest financial technology acquisition to date when Intuit bought Credit Karma last month for $8.1 billion in cash and stock — paving the way for new consumer services.
Based in San Diego, Johnson oversaw a 13 percent jump in revenue for Intuit’s consumer division, which includes TurboTax, TurboTax Live and Mint, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
And after resisting overtures from recruiters for two years, Johnson joined his first corporate board this fall, becoming a director at Qualcomm.
As a minority executive overseeing a multi-billion-dollar business unit, Johnson has been highly sought after by companies looking to increase diversity on their boards. In those talks, he tried to ascertain whether he could genuinely contribute, or whether he was being courted because of his race.
“It is a weird thing. You do not want to be considered because you are Black. You want to be considered because you are the right person,” he said. “But that is kind of naïve.
“We do need to course correct and address it. So, you know that (race) plays a role, and it should play some kind of a role as you look to diversify your board. But you don’t want that to be the reason” for being offered a seat.
Johnson, 52, grew up in a military family. His father attended Tuskegee University and served in the Air Force. Five of seven brothers served in the military, including an older brother who went to West Point.
Johnson chose the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was a two-time all-conference running back. He graduated with a degree in Operations Research.
After the Air Force, he spent 20 years working in the U.S. and abroad for Kraft Foods, SC Johnson, Kodak, Gillette and Best Buy. He joined Intuit in 2012 and was named head of the Consumer Group in 2018.
Today, Johnson has profit and loss responsibility for a $3.1 billion business unit that he is transforming beyond do-it-yourself tax preparation software. His strategy is to empower households with technology and services to take control of their financial lives — not only by maximizing tax refunds but also by saving more, paying off debt and lowering loan/credit card payments.
Johnson spoke with the Union-Tribune about his vision for the Intuit’s Consumer Group, what he brings to Qualcomm’s board and his perspective as a minority executive. Here are some excerpts, which have been condensed for clarity.
Q: What brought you to Intuit?
A: Eight years ago, I had an opportunity, and I came for two things. It is a technology company. That is something I really wanted to be part of because of the relevance that technology has in shaping future experiences for customers, and Intuit is just a highly relevant company. And the second attribute was the values of Intuit.
We have made some really big changes in the organization, the biggest of which was a vision for our Consumer Group. That vision is we want to fight for financial freedom for all consumers.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: What I have learned over the years, and I knew this but to do it first-hand through things like Follow Me Home where we spend time with consumers in their homes, is the role that financial stress plays in their lives, and the havoc it wreaks on their lives in general.
There was a woman, I remember, speaking about pacing her room. She could not sleep at night because of the stress, the financial worries she had.
When you think about the role that the tax refund plays in a consumer’s life, for over 80 percent of Americans, it can be the biggest check of their year. It is the check that allows them to get their life back on track annually. They come into tax season with a whole bunch of bills and they rely upon that tax refund.
When I first got here, it was not about financial freedom. It was about maximizing your refund. But when we started to understand why it is so important and the role that it plays, we started asking how can we help them make a difference with that check?
That led us to innovate beyond tax to what we call Turbo, which is an application that allows people to re-engineer their financial lives and leverage their refund to improve their credit score, find other ways to save and make better financial decisions.
So, the journey kind of started with tax and the role that the refund played in their lives, and then realizing we can help them do more with that refund and make better decisions with that refund. And that kind of gave birth to a broader strategy around financial freedom.
Q: How does it work?
A: Our strategy for unlocking smart money decisions is two-fold. Number one, we have an app called Mint. Mint is a financial planning app that is focused on helping consumers figure out how to spend less, save more, and hopefully we are extending it to help them make more money. We have about 3 million active users.
The second part of our strategy is the acquisition of Credit Karma, which has 105 million users. What they effectively do is enable customers to get access to products that help them to re-engineer their financial lives.
In other words, if they have a credit card where they are overpaying, how do they get to a lower interest rate? Do they need debt consolidation? Are they overpaying for auto insurance or an auto loan or a mortgage? Refinancing? All of those transactions lead to putting more money in the consumer’s pocket. That is why Credit Karma became a very important part of our broader strategy.
Q: Tell me about TurboTax Live.
A: Strategically, our roadmap is to extend our lead in the do-it-yourself (tax prep) category by leveraging data and artificial intelligence to remove friction and ensure customers maximize their returns.
The second part is to transform the assisted tax market (using a tax professional). The assisted tax market is a $20 billion market. Eighty-four million customers use assisted tax, and many do not need to. So, TurboTax Live is an offering that we brought to market that effectively says we are going to create a virtual expert platform that connects consumers to pros. This allows them to access a pro on demand. By pros, I mean CPAs, Enrolled Agents and tax attorneys.
The third leg of our strategy would be to disrupt traditional consumer finance. Imagine creating this virtual platform that is artificial intelligence-driven that autonomously helps you optimize your financial decisions. Think about the ability for us to realize that there is an opportunity for you to get a higher yield savings account. Most customers put their money into an account and leave it there. But we could identify the opportunity and help them move their money autonomously so it works harder for them.
Q: Why did you decide to join Qualcomm’s board?
A: I had been approached about being on boards in the past, but having just become general manager of the Consumer Group a couple of years ago, and running a $3 billion division, it is all-consuming.
When I first got the job, I talked with (Intuit Executive Chairman) Brad Smith and (Chief Executive) Sasan Goodarzi. Their advice to me was, ‘Look Greg, we won’t stop you from joining a board. But our advice is you get a little bit of time under your belt.’
I had some conversations, but I always said the time is not right. About nine months ago, I was approached by recruiters who were exposing me to board opportunities because I had finally let them know that I am interested.
Qualcomm was one of those. The fact that it is a technology company is a big plus for me. Not only technology but 5G and how 5G is going to fundamentally change the world.
I bring that perspective from more of the demand side versus the supply side of the 5G technology revolution. So, I saw a chance to be very relevant, to bring another perspective more from consumer-use cases and demand that might help inform them about their roadmap and business model going forward. I saw the opportunity to add value there.”
Q: How did you approach the diversity issue with these board opportunities?
A: The boards that I got exposed to, I asked the question of not just Qualcomm, I asked the question of other boards because I was very skeptical about why I was being considered. The question I would ask — it would never be my first question; it would be my last question — was why me at this time and this point?
And if it did not come up around diversity, then I would bring it up more practically and say, the reason I am asking the question is because I want to make sure this is not just trying to check the box. I want to hear the contributions and expectations you have of me first. Those are the table stakes. You want me because of what I can contribute.
Now given that, as you discuss diversity of the board and the need to be more diverse, absolutely. So I feel privileged to be an example of moving in that direction.
Q: Were those uncomfortable conversations?
A: It was uncomfortable for me to ask. But the reality of it is, now that I am at this point, I am having to talk about it more. It has become more central. It is a story I need to share, and maybe I am leaning into it more.
I remember I used to say I wanted to be viewed by my contributions and my merits, not as a Black person because I thought being Black was a liability. That is the part I grew to understand. I had been so long thinking about it as a liability. How do you communicate that now and talk to people, particularly talk to other Blacks in my organization?
Being Black is a brotherhood so to speak, a sisterhood. It is a sense of community. There is something that is just very different about being Black that I cherish. So how do you start to have those conversations and create an environment and a dialog and educate and just try to enlighten?
Q: What needs to happen to increase diversity?
A: My starting point, to increase diversity on the board level, you must increase diversity in the C-suite, and to do that you are going to have to create some diversity through middle management. There is a pipeline.
I was used to being the only Black guy. I remember joining Kraft Foods with 30 MBAs from all kinds of different schools and different areas, but there were two of us who were Black. That has to change. That is where it starts. That is the part that is so important. And then just role models. It will be a journey. It will not be a light switch. But I believe there is a higher level of commitment to that journey now than I can recall at any point in my career.
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