Every group has one colleague who brings everyone together—the one who arrives first, leaves last, keeps his or her cool in the face of setbacks, and meets every deadline. It could be the project manager who hits a milestone and lets others bask in the limelight; the player who makes his teammates look good with every run, block, and pass; or the executive who personifies the company’s values through his or her relentless energy, vision, and drive to succeed. These qualities describe a team player. They define John Herma.

Herma RC’70 has been wildly successful in his athletic, corporate, and philanthropic pursuits, and he has been a consummate teammate every step of the way. During his senior year at Rutgers, Herma won a gold medal at the AAU Indoor National Track Championships in Madison Square Garden as part of the Scarlet Knights relay team. On February 27, 1970, he and his teammates—Tom Ulan RC’71, Jim Smith RC’70, and Rob Kerr RC’71—sped past elite sprinters and Olympians in the sprint medley, in which each leg of the relay covers a different distance ranging from 100 to 440 yards. “Being part of that team with those guys taught me how to get the best out of myself and those around me,” Herma says. The four members of the relay team were inducted into the Rutgers Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.

John Herma's impressive display of memorabilia

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John Herma has an impressive display of memorabilia in his Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, home,  including medals for his exploits in track. Herma won a gold medal at the AAU Indoor National Track Championships in Madison Square Garden as part of the 1970 Scarlet Knights relay team, which included alumni Tom Ulan, Jim Smith, and Rob Kerr.

Photography: 
Josh Ritchie

He took his championship experience with him to begin, a decade later, a 20-year career at Kohl’s as chief operating officer and, alongside chief executive officer Bill Kellogg and president Jay Baker, created the modern department store. The three partners laid the groundwork for a retail juggernaut that grew from $300 million in annual sales in 1986 to $6.1 billion in 2000, when they all retired. In the age of Amazon, the suburban Milwaukee-based Kohl’s remains one of the most stable and dynamic names in retail.

Since his illustrious career ended, Herma has devoted himself to philanthropy and to raising awareness about a cause close to his heart. After losing a daughter to a congenital heart condition, he established the Herma Heart Institute at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

Herma, not much of a self-promoter, says those around him led to his success. The 71-year-old retired almost two decades ago, but he’s busier than ever. Herma grew up on Long Island and wanted to go to Rutgers from an early age because his father, Ed Herma ED’33, had attended. When he played football his first year, the equipment manager recognized his name and asked him about his father, who he had equipped for baseball 30 years earlier. Herma studied business and decided to go into retail after a class tour of the Sears in New Brunswick during his senior year.

“I loved the idea of a career that involved a wide range of jobs,” he says. “I wanted to be out with customers and employees and not in an office all day.” After stints at Sears and Gimbels, Herma moved up to the parent company of Gimbels, BATUS, the U.S. arm of British American Tobacco. In 1980, BATUS wanted to expand beyond tobacco and acquired several department store chains, including a little company in Milwaukee. That’s where Herma met Kellogg, then president of Kohl’s department stores. “I liked him right away,” he says.

Kohl’s had only 39 stores, and the executive offices were inside one of them, positioned near the public bathrooms. “All day long, people would knock on my office door looking for a place to relieve themselves,” says Herma. BATUS had directed Kellogg to position the brand as a discount store like Walmart or Kmart, and in 1985, when sales started to tank, the conglomerate decided to off-load the chain of stores.

John Herma and his wife, Susan with their daughter Kyle Herma

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John Herma and his wife, Susan, left,  established the Herma Health Institute at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in memory of their daughter Leigh, who died from a congenital heart condition. They are pictured with their daughter Kyle Herma.

Photography: 
Michael Sears

Peter Sommerhauser, senior partner at the Godfrey & Kahn law firm and Kohl’s board member from 1988 to 2015, was contacted by Kellogg and Herma to put together a proposal to buy Kohl’s from BATUS. To make the deal work, Herma took out a second mortgage and borrowed against his father’s stocks. “For three years, I had no money,” Herma says. “And my wife, Susan, and I had no furniture in our living room or den.” What he had instead was ownership  in a company that would grow beyond his wildest dreams.

Baker soon brought his merchandising expertise to the executive team. “As soon as the buyout closed, we got rid of the discount concept and focused on soft goods—clothing, footwear, and linens,” Herma says. He believed that their little company could become a national brand. “Bill tasked Jay with hitting a 32 percent sales margin in merchandise, and he challenged me to hold the company expenses at 22 percent,” he says. “We executed so well that, in two years, we were running double-digit increases.”

By 1988, Kellogg, Herma, and Baker wanted to refinance the company, when Federated Department Stores (now Macy’s) put its Main Street chain up for sale.  “They had 28 stores in markets—Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Detroit, Grand Rapids—that we aspired to get into and all with similar offerings to ours,” says Herma, who recommended buying Main Street as a way to sustain the company’s growth, internally and externally. But acquiring a company that was 80 percent the size of Kohl’s while simultaneously re-capitalizing was dangerous since one misstep would bring down both companies. “Our banker said doing two major transactions at the same time was like doing brain surgery,” Herma says. But they pulled it off, and Kohl’s grew like kudzu. “It was a gutsy move,” says Sommerhauser.

Baker began hitting merchandising home runs. He convinced Levi’s to sell their Dockers brand to Kohl’s, prompting the merchandise division to develop other in-house brands. “We did very well with private label brands, with Sonoma being our biggest success,” Herma says. “They were equal in quality to the branded alternative, yet at least 20 percent cheaper in price, and they delivered a better gross margin.” Selling private label clothing not only cut out the middlemen, but also raised the public’s awareness of Kohl’s.

Kellogg, Herma, and Baker kept improving the company’s results with their innovations, from designing their own shopping carts to changing the store configuration. “Bill laid out a vision for store expansion, and we just became a juggernaut,” Herma says. Their prototype shopper was a mom with children, and they built stores around her convenience.

After taking the company public in 1992, the executive team tripled the number of stores nationwide in eight years and increased revenue tenfold. “Kohl’s today looks a lot different than it did when John, Bill, and Jay retired in 2000,” Sommerhauser says. “But they were able to stay ahead of the innovation curve for a very long time.” The company’s two-year partnership with Amazon is a case in point. “That was a brilliant move,” says Herma, “because Kohl’s is now getting millennials into its stores: once they’re returning an Amazon product, they are buying other things at Kohl’s.”

After Herma retired from Kohl’s, he directed his team-building passions toward coaching youth and then high school football in Wisconsin. “My son was playing for the Brookfield Central Lancers, and he asked me to coach,” Herma says. “I loved it so much that I did it for eight years.” He worked as hard at coaching as he did at Kohl’s, a commitment that became problematic for the other coaches. “We were working seven days a week—until some of the other coaches’ wives asked to have their husbands back on Sundays,” he says. “Eventually we took the Lancers to the state championship during my son’s junior year.”

Herma’s passion for coaching led to a friendship with Greg Schiano when he was the head coach of the Scarlet Knights football team from 2001 to 2011. “Greg had a great vision for what he wanted to do for Rutgers football, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Herma says. Inspired by Schiano, Herma donated $2.5 million to build the Brown Football Recruiting Pavilion and Welcome Center, which helped elevate the stature of the Rutgers football program as it was preparing to enter the Big Ten Conference.

But Herma’s philanthropy already had deeper roots than football. In 1987, John and Susan’s daughter Leigh was born with a congenital heart condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. At the time, her condition had only a 10 percent survival rate because it dramatically reduced the normal flow of blood through the heart. Leigh spent the next three months of her life in intensive care at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin before passing away.

In the depths of their heartbreak, the Hermas decided to do something to help other families with children who had similar conditions. “The first thing we did was buy the doctors and nurses at the children’s hospital a Thanksgiving lunch in appreciation for how they cared for our daughter,” Herma says. “Then we gave the hospital a rocking chair for the families whose children suffered from congenital heart conditions.”

The Hermas’ gifts to the hospital kept coming. When they found out that some children were dying because the hospital had only one ECMO heart/lung machine to keep failing hearts alive, they bought another one. Over the years, the Hermas donated more than $25 million to the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and  their generosity led to the creation of the Herma Heart Institute.

Herma has adapted his ability to calmly analyze the facts and mobilize a team to tackle congenital heart conditions in children, quietly providing leadership at the hospital and spearheading funding initiatives for research into finding cures. “The institute draws people from all over the world,” says Maryanne Kessel, executive director of development for the institute. “We perform about 650 heart procedures a year, with 35 percent done on infants who are less than 30 days old.”

Through the institute, the Hermas have turned their tragedy into a legacy for their daughter, funding research and medical innovation that has positioned the hospital as a leader in complex cardiac surgeries. “Every August, we have a picnic where we invite all the kids who’ve had heart surgery to the Milwaukee Zoo,” Kessel says. “Last year, Susan looked out over the 3,500 kids gathered together in their Herma Heart Institute T-shirts and said, ‘This is what Leigh’s three months in this world meant.’” •