A veteran of big agencies and companies, Melinda McMullen likes a challenge. After working to rebuild the culture of South Central LA, she's now doing the same thing at Bank One.Melinda McMullen grew up in a PR household. The California native's father was a noted PR pro at Pacific Bell. But it wasn't until McMullen worked as an intern at Ketchum in the mid-1970s that the PR bug bit her. Except for a brief but noteworthy detour into entrepreneurship and community service, McMullen, now SVP of communications and public affairs at Bank One in Chicago, hasn't looked back since. Her PR career has included stints at Ketchum, Edelman, and Burson-Marsteller, as well as at corporate giants like American Express, IBM, and Bank One, where she's been since 2001. At her present company, she faces the challenges of organizing and publicizing the bank's charitable largesse, ramping up employee morale after a series of mergers, and improving customer relations as new competitors continue to appear in its Chicago home market. And while most would find all those tasks overwhelming, McMullen relishes it. "My goal is to be really glad I came to work every day," she says. "She has an infectious passion and excitement for whatever she does," says Jon Iwata, IBM's SVP of communications and a former boss of McMullen's. Dave Drobis, the recently retired senior partner and chairman at Ketchum who hired McMullen when he oversaw the agency's San Francisco operations, recalls, "She was among the most aggressive young people I'd ever known. She would just barrel-ass into a project and get it done." That passion was never more evident than during her sojourn away from PR, a three-year stint in which she helped create Food From the 'Hood, a student-owned salad-dressing business in poverty-ridden South Central LA. It was 1992. Riots dominated LA's streets. While many would react to such turbulence by writing a quick check to a community group, McMullen volunteered her services to a South Central high school with a community garden where students and their science teacher were growing herbs and lettuce. By September 1992, McMullen was serving as business advisor to students trying to turn that garden into a business. She put up $5,000 of her own money to finance the project, which saw the students selling herbs they'd grown at a farmers' market in Santa Monica. McMullen would visit the school on her lunch hours (she worked for Edelman in LA at the time). After a year, the fledging company was down to $600 in capital. A friend of McMullen suggested the company branch out into salad dressing. Knowing that would require even more of her time, she committed to taking a year off from her job to work at Food From The 'Hood. That year turned into three. To get distribution for the company, "what I really did best kicked in - publicity," McMullen recalls. By late 1993, the LA Times was writing about Food from the 'Hood, calling McMullen "a young, lanky ex-ad executive who has fallen in love with a bunch of high school students." Soon after, coverage appeared in BusinessWeek, People, The Washington Post, and Newsweek as well. Unfortunately, after three years on that project, "I was broke," McMullen recalls. She wrote a friend doing PR at IBM and got some project work. That quickly turned into a full-time job on the East Coast by the end of 1995. IBM was in turmoil at the time, with then-CEO Lou Gerstner in the midst of his now legendary overhaul. "Once again it was a cause," recalls McMullen. "The cause at IBM was to save IBM." Iwata was most impressed with McMullen's creative approach in making IBM Research an appealing job option for top college students. She created Summer Jam, an event that brought together students and IBM scientists to talk about what the world would be like in 2020. "It was highly successful," Iwata says. "People still talk about Summer Jam." Today, McMullen is bringing innovative thinking to Bank One employee relations. She's been using the intranet to get employee feedback, a move encouraged by Bank One CEO Jamie Dimon, who previously worked with McMullen at American Express. In fact, a search firm kept after her for three months to take the Bank One job. "I felt if I met with Jamie, I would do it," she adds. "He's that charismatic." Dimon wanted her to straighten out the bank's contributions area. A series of mergers over the years had left Bank One backing 18 major foundations. McMullen has whittled things down and directed contributions to where they make sense from employees' perspectives and in terms of the bank's image in the 14 states it operates. She also worked with her media relations staff to get press for the bank's good deeds. "I wanted to rebuild the culture of Bank One," she says. "Employees now are really proud to work here, which wasn't always the case." Two months after McMullen joined Bank One, the head of internal communications left. Rather than rush to fill the job, McMullen did it herself to truly learn what would improve morale. "You can't know too much about what goes on inside a company," she says. McMullen admits to putting in 12-hour days at the bank whose building is a fixture of the Chicago skyline. Part of that time is being devoted to raising the bank's profile with customers as rival Washington Mutual (WM) - known for its favorable consumer image - moves aggressively into the Chicago market. WM is opening an office across the street from the Bank One headquarters, which has responded with massive posters touting its services in the street-front windows that face the WM office. McMullen's eyes twinkle when she talks about taking on the rival's assault. It's obvious she's meeting her goal of being really glad to come to work. ----- Melinda McMullen 2001-present SVP, comms and public affairs, Bank One 1999-2001 VP, comms, global services, IBM 1998-1999 VP, IBM Research & Technology comms 1997-1998 Director of comms, IBM Research 1996-1997 Director, corporate and govt. affairs, IBM 1995-1996 Manager, corporate initiatives, IBM 1993-1995 Cofounder, Food from the 'Hood 1987-1993 SVP, Edelman 1987 Fireman's Fund 1983-1986 Manager, business support comms, AmEx 1981-1983 SAE, Burson-Marsteller 1979-1981 AE, Ketchum
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