Susan Brandt grew up in Chicago and was the first woman in her family to attend Notre Dame, following three generations of men. After a stint at Leo Burnett advertising agency, she attended Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and assumed she’d always live in the Midwest. But one massive snowstorm and an opportunity to work at E. & J. Gallo Winery led her to California, where she worked with Ernest and Julio Gallo to introduce their very first vintage varietal wines, among other offerings. Later she opened Miraval Resort in Arizona and helped build the international division for home entertainment at 20th Century Fox.
In 1998, she joined Dr. Seuss Enterprises in La Jolla, where she’s overseen the creation of four films, three television shows, four stage shows, and multiple symphonies, books, and children’s museum exhibitions. The company is currently working on a new Green Eggs and Ham animated series for Netflix and will release a posthumous Seuss book, Horse Museum, on September 3.
On saying no (and moving for a guy!):
When I was at Fox, I got a call from Universal Studios. But I didn’t go for the job, because my then-boyfriend, now husband, got an offer down here in San Diego. People said, "You’re throwing your career away for a guy." I said, "Yes I am, because it’s the right guy."
How I got my current job:
In 1998 I read in the newspaper that Dr. Seuss had signed a deal for a Jim Carrey Grinch film. I was like, movies! I do movies. I wrote my entire résumé in rhyme—I cringe now at that, but the board of directors was tickled. They were deciding on another candidate and they were divided. My résumé showed up and they said, "Why don’t we at least talk to this person?" I had the amazing opportunity to help Audrey Geisel ["Mrs. Seuss"] run the business, and now I get to run this business. My lucky moment was picking up the newspaper.
When you look at my jobs, it looks like I was planning each step. But that only makes sense looking backward. Truly follow your passion and with that inevitably is going to come success. The wine business was very interesting to me. It didn’t feel like work. Same with Miraval; it was a beautiful resort, and I like to travel. You don’t have to write your life out, but you do know what you love and don’t love. Once you get into an area you like, you’ll see all these other opportunities.
What’s kept me here:
I get to combine my creativity, my entrepreneurial skills, and my analytics. We get to come up with new ways of delivering this amazing intellectual property to a broad audience, and that lets us work in so many different industries—film, books, stage shows, apparel, exhibitions, cruises. We work in schools and libraries. It’s never the same, it’s never boring, and that’s why I’ve been here for as long as I have.
What Audrey Geisel taught me:
There was a lot of emotion in terms of sharing her husband’s property. He had died in 1991 and left her in charge. We’re a big company in terms of reach and revenue but not in terms of people, and that’s because of Audrey saying, "I want to know who’s working for me. I want to like the cut of their jib." She had a unique sense of humor, a quirkiness of her own. She told the funniest jokes and was delighted when you told one too, and at the same time was a very smart businesswoman, very tough in negotiations. I can be tough in business and, at the end of the day, still be goofy me and tell silly jokes. You can be smart and successful and still be you. She was always Audrey.
What Ernest Gallo taught me:
I was fresh out of business school, thinking I’m all that. We would start meetings with a presentation or pitch, and Ernest would ask the youngest person first, "What do you think?" Then he would go to the most senior, and then he would speak last. Because he would say, "I don’t want you to be influenced by your boss; I want to hear what you have to say. I’ve hired you because you’re a smart person, and if you feel differently from your boss, you’re probably not going to tell me."
My biggest hurdle:
I am a two-time cancer survivor. The way I approach my battles with cancer, is that it’s not the title of my book, it’s a chapter. Fourteen years ago, when my son Aiden was two, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to have a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, multiple surgeries for reconstruction... I would work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, go to chemo on Wednesday afternoon and bring the kids, stay home Thursday and Friday, start to recover on Saturday and Sunday, and be in the office again on Monday. For me it kept life normal. Recently I also had surgery for colon cancer. I don’t have a victim mentality. Take the time you need to stress and cry and mourn over the news—you really do need time to feel sorry for yourself—but at some point I imagine putting all of those emotions in a box. I put the box on a shelf and say, "Now I’m going to go do something else. I will focus on my kids, on my work, I’m going to laugh, joke, and if I need to feel sorry for myself, I’ll just take the box down." And more often than not, you don’t take the box down again.