Jan Novak

Jan Novak

Executive Insights:

An Interview 

with Jan Novak

by Carole E. Scott

Jan Novak is the 2003 Executive-in-Residence at the Richards College of Business, University of West Georgia. A vice president of  the NutraSweet Company before it was purchased by the Monsanto Company, she subsequently served as  president of Monsanto's Solaris Group. Carole E. Scott, Professor Emerita of Business Administration, University of West Georgia, is the Editor-in-Chief of B>Quest.

That James Watt of steam engine fame was a very self-confident person who relished challenges is illustrated by the fact that even though he knew nothing about music or organs, he agreed to provide a Masonic Lodge in Glasgow with an organ. After immersing himself in the appropriate subject matter for a few weeks, he built an organ. A like attitude, coupled with an acceptance of women in business undreamed of fifty years ago, enabled Jan Novak to succeed in disparate areas of business and climb into top management with a major corporation.

After working in a variety of positions related to budgeting and forecasting, financial analysis, and product analysis for Zenith Radio Corporation, she moved on to serve as vice president of  the NutraSweet Company. After it was purchased by the Monsanto Company she became the president of its Solaris Group. Her most recent post with Monsanto was as president of the Sustainable Development Business Sector. In this position she created and secured funding for new businesses in aquaculture, drinking water, bio-engineered saltwater-tolerant agricultural plans, and bio-engineered garden plants. Previously she served as president of the Solaris Group, where she led the rapid expansion of Monsanto’s global consumer garden products business to more than $500 million in revenue. During her tenure Solaris more than tripled its profits through four acquisitions and internal growth and doubled the sales of its core product, RoundUp. At NutraSweet she was responsible for global marketing and U.S. sales. While she was in this position she negotiated $1 billion of multi-year contracts with major customers and implemented a $100 million global marketing plan. 

Novak has an MBA with a concentration in finance and a BS in journalism (with honors) from the University of Illinois at Urbana. Her interest in business grew out of business courses she took as an undergraduate. As a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois she was nominated for Outstanding Teaching Assistant. A desire to return to the world of "real work" recently lead her to abandon the policy-setting world of upper management to return to college teaching.

Since she had no career path in mind when she began her business career, she doesn't think this is necessary, but she doesn't disparage having one. However, she does believe that it is important to begin your business career with the knowledge necessary to handle the hands-on type of positions open to someone who is just starting their business career. She began her career in finance, which she thinks is a particularly good functional area in which to begin your career because in it you learn about the entire business and just how much each aspect of it contributes to the bottom line, and you become acquainted with people throughout the business. 

She moved from finance to marketing because someone in marketing who was impressed with the interest she showed in what they were doing offered her a position. Later she moved from marketing to international development. She attributes the fact that she has never had to seek a new position to the contacts she established in previous jobs and the help she got from mentors. She believes that because a large corporation can better afford to absorb the cost and risk involved than can a small business, a large corporation's employees are more likely to be able to move from the functional area in which they were educated to a different one. On the other hand, she realizes that some big companies are very bureaucratic, and that, as a result, their employees are  likely to get "smothered". 

Tips for Doing Business Abroad

She chose to begin her career back in the eighties in the pharmaceutical industry because of its enlightened attitude towards women. However, she reports that within the United States she has experienced no significant problems arising out of the fact that she is a woman. While male customers have sometimes displayed a bit of discomfort in dealing with a woman, she says this was far more true ten years ago than it is today. Her experience has not been quite as good outside the United States. In Asia she attracted a good bit of attention because she was a novelty. (She has not done business in the Middle East.) However, many of the problems she has encountered abroad were the same ones a man would have had if he was as unfamiliar as she initially was with foreign cultures. When doing business abroad, she has sometimes marginally altered her dress to make it "a little bit" more modest. Other, more important adjustments essential for a person of either sex, involve eye contact, personal space, and body language. Familiarizing yourself with and adapting to foreign cultural norms, she says, is very important. "If you want to do business in a country, you have to learn how to do business in that country." 

Skills Needed by Managers

 Every general manager must know a lot about finance. However, "no company succeeds by having great finance people." This is because what people in finance do is "count the results of what other people do."  In general management at the upper levels she thinks skills are readily transferable from one type of industry to another. However, specific knowledge about an industry is necessary at lower supervisory levels because there  you are closely involved in doing the work involved in turning out the company's goods or services. 

Because, she says,  it is very hard to change a first impression, it is important that a new manager make a good first impression. Managers going into a new company or a new division of a company whose operations they know little about must be people who really like to learn--fast, and they must have good people as subordinates who are familiar with the "nuts and bolts" involved. When you shift to a new industry, she says, you should not do exactly the same thing you did before.You need to know what is and is not important, and this is something that is different in every company, much less in every industry. You must learn what matters in this industry, who the people are, and how they like to be managed. 

She believes that in order to maintain an "entrepreneurial spirit" that a large, multi-product company should follow what she calls a "tight/loose" policy. The heads of the company's various divisions should be given a set of iron-clad principles and a set of "numbers," and if they follow the former and deliver the latter, upper-level management should stay out of  "their hair". However, top management should not allow its divisions to go off on a tangent, as it is its role to decide where the company is going to "place its bets." 

Career Advice for College Students

"Do," she advises, "what it takes to pursue your dream. You can change your mind about your career. You are not required to pursue a career related to your major. You should look for vibrant industries for the long-term. You are not required to pursue a career related to your first job. You can change your mind, and start all over."

Career Tips

  • Know yourself

  • Be yourself

  • Trust yourself

  • Engage your heart

  • Love learning

  • Find a mentor

  • DWYSYWD: Do What You Said You Would Do

  • Tell the truth

  • Get a life

  • Smile and laugh out loud

Jan Novak



(Business Quest)

A Web Journal of Applied Topics in Business and Economics


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