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Diversely Skilled CFO Rises to the Topps

Each of John Mueller's career stops provides a piece of the reason he may be uniquely qualified to run finance at the iconic trading-card maker.
David McCannApril 9, 2014

Baseball cards have been such a big part of so many kids’ lives, for more than six decades, that the Topps brand name is for the most part instantly recognizable.

It’s certainly quite familiar to John Mueller, who on Monday became the new CFO at The Topps Company, the maker of sports trading cards, gum and candy. He grew up in Minnesota as a Twins fan and enthusiastic card collector, and lists the Topps brand as a primary driver of his interest in the job.

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It’s not all about nostalgia, though. Mueller has a quite varied employment history, and each of his stops along the way provides a piece of the reason why he may be uniquely qualified to run finance at Topps.

Picture of Topps CFO John Mueller

John Mueller

His employers have included, chronologically: consumer-products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark (five years); four investment banking firms (13 years total); home video distributor Genius Products (two years); and XO Group, a publisher of multimedia content for people planning to marry or have children (five years). At Genius and XO, he was the finance chief.

The businesses of both Kimberly-Clark and Genius, as well as Topps, depend heavily on distributing packaged consumer goods to major retailers. “The way the big retailers work, your product goes in on wheels and if it doesn’t sell it comes back to you the same way,” Mueller says. “So you have to deal with sales return reserves and things of that nature.”

Kimberly-Clark, again like Topps, is a manufacturer. “Making Kleenex tissues and Huggies diapers is a little different than making food products [and sports collectibles], but there are a lot of consistent themes too, in terms of manufacturing, as well as dealing with inventories,” he notes.

During his years in investment banking, Mueller focused largely on transactions between entertainment and media companies. One such deal involved The Weinstein Company, the film studio run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and Genius.

That work involved understanding the underlying microeconomics of the entertainment and media industries, and how that can work to the benefit of different parties, to facilitate putting together transactions that make economic sense.

“The intellectual-property business is steeped in a lot of technical contractual things, and royalty agreements and reporting,” Mueller says. “I know the lay of the land and the different players in entertainment and media. Knowing those business models will help me understand what we could do here at Topps with some of those companies, or how could we elevate our business plan to be more like one of them.”

His last employer before Topps, XO Group, specialized in providing its audience with information in digital formats. That is a fast-growing need for Topps, given the fairly recent shift in kids’ leisure patterns.

The challenge for many companies today is that what were previously “analog experiences” (like collecting and trading sports cards) are now being done on mobile devices, Mueller observes. “Kids are comfortable using those devices from a very young age, so we have to make sure we remain relevant for that age group.”

It’s early days for Topps in figuring out how to approach the digital market. Just in the past year it introduced three applications for iPhone users called Bunt, Huddle and Kick. The apps bring elements of collecting and trading baseball, football and soccer cards, respectively, to the digital world. “It’s one of the big pushes for the company,” Mueller says.

Making hay with digital products may be slightly more challenging for very mature companies like Topps, which started up operations in 1938 and got into the card business in 1951.

“The company has been around a long time, which can be a blessing and a curse,” Mueller says. “The blessing is that you have stability and certain things you’ve been doing well for a long time. The curse is the risk of inertia setting in, where you get too set in your ways.”

The “beauty” of Topps, according to Mueller, is that when it went private in 2007, new blood in the form of high-level, high-quality talent started coming in. In part that was aided by the involvement of former Disney icon Michael Eisner, whose investment firm, Tornonte, along with Madison Dearborn Partners, bought Topps. “Having a proven leader in entertainment media has rejuvenated and energized the company,” the CFO says.