Marvin Ellison, chairman, president and CEO of home improvement retailer Lowe’s, credited a faith in God and a worth ethic instilled by his parents that helped him achieve far beyond his humble roots, going from a part-time stocking clerk earning $4.35 an hour at Target to heading up a Fortune 500 firm.
Ellison also urged greater diversity, both in the associate ranks and the top echelons of the industry, to be more reflective of the overall audience, noting he was often “the only black person in the room” as he ascended the corporate ladder.
“I grew up in a small town in the south,” Ellison told the audience at NRF 2023, where he was honored with this year’s Visionary Award. “If you went outside and looked north, south, east or west, you didn’t see what looked like success. But my parents were an incredible influence in my life. They believed their children could be anything they wanted if you believed in God and worked hard.”
Ellison, who came to the top job at Lowes in 2018 from the same role at JC Penney, said he “didn’t need a consultant” to tell him there were diversity problems at Lowe’s. He said he became intentional in finding men and women who were not only diverse ethnically but in thought and as individuals.
“At the end of the day, the management team at any company owes it to themselves to have the decision makers reflect the customer base they’re trying to service,” he said. “Now our EVPs are 50% ethnically diverse, with 25% women, and the board also.”
Ellison was quick to add he and his leadership team weren’t trying to simply “check the box” on diversity. “I just believe when you bring in people to the room with unique backgrounds, and the ability to be the most authentic version of themselves, it gives you great capabilities,” he said, adding “we’re a work in progress, and I’m not satisfied yet.”
In terms of hiring criteria at Lowe’s, Ellison said he worked with the HR department as a first priority to develop key qualities the company requires when deciding who to hire and who to promote. In the spirit of transparency, they were published to the entire company.
“We wanted everyone to know, these are the core behaviors we’re look for in leaders to advance and grow,” Ellison said. “You need to deliver consistent results, continue to learn, take care of our customers, take action and be courageous. These are not extraordinary things, but you have to do them consistently.”
Ellison said he constantly challenges his entire team if they see someone promoted who isn’t living up to these core values and behaviors, “You have to call me on it. This is the way we try to recruit talent, whether diverse or not. We have to retain a level of transparency, saying, ‘here is what we want and how to do it.’ When they do, we reward them. I’m very passionate about that.”
Also from day one, Ellison set to work to figure out the root causes of Lowe’s under-performance, especially against its chief competitor, without naming Home Depot. To set about this monumental task, he hired a new CIO and CFO, and new heads of merchandising, stores, ecommerce, supply chain, all in the first four months.
“You needed disruption (to turn around ) a company that large,” he said. “We needed to figure out what are the root causes of why we’re not performing at the level we should. I realized, it was about retail fundamentals. What are the things every great retailer globally does well? It’s product selection, supply chain, operational efficiency and engaging the customer.”
NRF President Matthew Shay, who did a fireside chat with Ellison, lauded the CEO for his love of being in the stores to keep his finger on the pulse of associates’ work and store operations. For instance, he noted how Ellison chose to begin his first day on the job at a Lowe’s location.