Marvin Ellison has graced the executive ranks of numerous iconic American brands, yet even he admits that throughout his storied professional career, he can count 10 promotions that he did not get and was passed over for.
At the 2019 Global Retailing Conference, Ellison shares one instance in particular: he was working at Target when a good friend of his got a position that he felt he truly deserved. What frustrated him, maybe even more than losing out on the job itself, was that another colleague involved in the assessment process mentioned that there was really only one senior vice president who adamantly objected to him getting his promotion.
Ellison was hurt, angry, and felt victimized as he came to realize that this single man’s opinion was the determining factor rather than his production at work.
“I decided to do something different,” he reveals. “I picked up the phone and I called him. I said, ‘look I understand you played a role in this decision, I don’t want to revisit that, but can I ask you a favor? Could you mentor me?”
Putting aside all the bubbling emotions anybody would reasonably feel in such a circumstance, Ellison humbly considered that maybe there was something this man saw that he couldn’t see himself. “Rather than being a victim, I said to myself, let me just take a step back, and maybe there is something about me, in my leadership style or preparedness, that I need to work on,” he says.
This senior vice president agreed to take him on as a mentee and over the next twelve months, the two men spent plenty of quality time together. Ellison makes clear, “I didn’t have him as a mentor to try to politicize a friendship.” Rather, he was eager to discover any reading material he should be studying or if there were activities he ought to be involved in that could help him advance his business acumen.
As fate would have it, a couple of years later another position significantly larger than the one he had originally been passed up for became available. This time around, his greatest advocate for him getting that job was the same person who blocked him two years earlier.
When Marvin’s father was just a teenager in high school, he understood the transcendent truth that education is the only way out of poverty; this was despite the untamed timberland of institutionalized racism that encircled him. The honors student’s life changed, however, when his dad suffered a heart attack around harvest time, forcing him to drop out of school and support the family with farm labor.
As he and his wife began their own family, it became impossible for the meager farming pay they earned to take care of everybody, therefore, Marvin’s father would work two and sometimes even three jobs at once to keep food on the table; the man’s pride never allowed him to take any form of government assistance.
His unbridled love for learning would someday seep its way into his own children. Marvin Ellison can recall being encouraged to read at an early age, he also remembers his father telling him, “never allow your surroundings to dictate your dreams.”
Growing up in rural Tennessee, 12 miles outside a two stoplight town known as Brownsville, offered anything but inspiring examples of prosperity for Marvin to gaze upon. Not to mention, the seeds of segregation continued to find nourishment in this region well beyond the Civil Rights Act of 1968; as an African-American, he was well aware of the mental limitations this sort of environment could impede him with.
Being the middle child of seven siblings, he describes himself as a “born peacemaker” amongst his brothers and sisters. Most of their childhood was spent in abject poverty, it’s unimaginable for most first-world dwellers today, but his family didn’t get indoor plumbing until he turned six years old in 1971.
Marvin’s mother was unbelievably capable of stretching a dollar, therefore, her resourcefulness made it possible for the family to enjoy two shopping trips to J.C. Penney every year, first for back to school clothes and then around Christmas time. “Going to J.C. Penney was a big deal. It was something we looked forward to,” says his older sister, Virginia.
They’d later use these same outfits when performing at churches all over the country as a traveling gospel act. Playing bass for the group groomed within Marvin what would become a lifelong passion for music.
His mom encouraged the practice of listening in general, he recalls her frequently reminding him, “God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason, listen more than you talk.”
One of the greatest lessons Marvin is thankful that, despite their circumstances, his parents instilled within them, was “that you couldn’t make excuses and your ability to go out and take on life’s challenges and prepare yourself for the future would allow you to achieve anything you wanted.”
When the eldest sister of the Ellison bunch left their modest farm for the University of Tennessee, he remembers thinking of her as a courageous adventurer taking on a frontier that their family had never explored before. She largely helped to motivate him to do the same after graduating high school.
Moving on to classrooms at the University of Memphis, it took Marvin Ellison over five years to earn his undergraduate degree in business marketing. “I worked my way through college, it took me five and a half years to graduate because I was working, in some cases, full-time and [it’s difficult] trying to get classes around a full-time work schedule,” he discloses.
Not only was he working full-time and packing his schedule with as much coursework as possible but he also caught the attention of a young woman who was fascinated by the fact he carried a briefcase around campus rather than a backpack. Marvin met the love of his life and future wife, Sharyn, in a library in 1986.
According to the Wall Street Journal, their similar backgrounds drew them together. Both grew up in the South, part of African-American families steeped in church and gospel music. Sharyn’s mother was a pastor and her father was a manager at the local utility company who sang gospel.
As Marvin Ellison sat amongst fellow graduates at his University of Memphis commencement ceremony, he recalls being unable to focus on whatever eloquent messages their graduation speakers were sharing with the budding crowd.
“I can’t remember one single thing anybody said in that commencement address – not one,” he says. “My mind was simply preoccupied. Instead of listening intently to what they said, I sat there with an increased level of anxiety wondering about my life and what it would be like.”
“More pressing, I was thinking about things like would I get a good job? Was I truly prepared to make it on my own? Would I achieve my goals in life? I was thinking would I make my parents proud…because they deserved that? And I also wondered as I sat there, what would happen to this really cute girl I had met two years prior in the library? Those thoughts and not the commencement speaker occupied my mind.”
His retail career started by chance when, as a young college student in need of rent money, he entered his school’s employment office and haphazardly asked the clerk, “what’s the highest paying hourly position you have posted on the board?” The woman at the desk then proceeded to tell him about a part-time position available at Target that paid $4.35 an hour. Following a successful interview, Marvin Ellison got the job.
He began scaling the ranks of Target’s theft prevention unit and, as Fortune points out, those early roles gave him a close-up view of how retail works at the store level, everything from the cadence of markdowns to the science behind keeping shelves stocked. He’d also develop one of his hallmark management practices: listening to workers who are in the stores and on the front lines.
“It was just a part-time job and 15 years later I was the corporate director of asset prevention for the company,” he says. “I was lucky and blessed that I joined a company that was just starting its growth trajectory, valued anyone who had intellectual curiosity, and valued people development.”
Mrs. Ellison reflects quite fondly on those opening years of her husband’s career. When the couple had to relocate to Jacksonville, Florida, they’d constantly make the long drive back home to see their loved ones. “It was some of the best times of our lives,” she remembers. “We would ride for 10 hours without ever turning the radio on. We would just talk.”
Having studied business administration in college and worked as an insurance underwriter and later an investment manager, Mrs. Ellison very much so forged her own career path early on. As Marvin continued his insatiable climb up the ladders of corporate America and Sharyn began having children, the Ellisons decided to focus their collective efforts on furthering Marvin’s career. Together, they planned for him to someday reach the highest levels of modern industry in the form of Chief Executive.
“I wanted to do everything we could do to support him,” Mrs. Ellison said.
Marvin Ellison on Effort
One of the greatest lessons in personal growth that Marvin Ellison learned came not long after finishing college. There was a recession occurring at the time and he was stuck working this asset protection job at a local Target that really didn’t have much to do with the university education he had just completed.
“In my mind, I rationalized that, because this was not my dream job, I did not have to give great effort every day,” he says. “So when I came to work, I was just marginal. I did the minimum required – no more, no less – every day.”
Six months into his newly established sub-par routine, a large staff meeting was organized that included the presence of his boss along with executives and managers from around the market.
“As my boss went around the room soliciting input on specific initiatives and processes and things that we were working on as a company, I came to the quick realization that I knew less than anybody in the room,” explains Marvin. “I sat there horrified that he was going to call on me with a specific question and I knew that I would become embarrassed because I didn’t have the answer. I was simply unprepared.”
That day, surrounded by his colleagues in an impressive conference room, he made a pact with God that if he could get out of the meeting without being totally embarrassed and exposed as a fraud then he would go back to work and put extreme effort in everything he did, whether it was his dream job or not.
The next day at work, he started his new approach to the business of life. “I literally read everything I could find on the retail industry – every document, every report, any analysis, anything I could get my hands on,” he says. “And you know what, a funny thing happened: I became better at my job. My peers saw me as a resource and I became someone that had great results.”
For the first time ever, Mr. Ellison began to enjoy his job. So his love for the retail business began.
In his 2014 University of Memphis commencement address, Marvin asks students to ponder the following, “211 degrees versus 212 degrees; if you take water to 211 degrees it gets very hot but if you take it to 212 degrees, just one degree different, it boils, it creates steam, and steam can power an entire factory – just one degree difference. How much more can be achieved in life by creating one degree of extra effort in everything we do?”
Moving on from Target, in 2002 Marvin Ellison chose to join the executive ranks of America’s largest home improvement retailer, Home Depot. His first order of business was to seek out a first-rate education on the companies floor-level operations. Going straight to the source, he reached out to Home Depot co-founder and former CEO, Bernie Marcus, and on a nearly quarterly basis, the two would talk strategy and culture while strolling through store aisles.
“Too many CEOs in retail like to be the smartest person in the room,” says Marcus. “Marvin’s not like that.”
As the company faced lagging e-commerce revenue, grim customer satisfaction ratings, and the ousting of a chief executive in 2007, Ellison found room for refinement. He was named head of U.S. Sales and immediately got to work on turning Home Depot into an online sales leader, in addition, he’s largely credited with injecting more excitement into the store experience.
Ellison began the practice of broadcasting a weekly video feature onto internal store TVs across the country that showcased exceptional customer-service experiences. Home Depot CEO at the time, Frank Blake, compares these screenings to something like ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights. “They provided a ‘Wow, that’s amazing’ element to work so that people could see how impactful their work could be…It makes the associates stars,” he says.
Even his wife got in on the innovations, Sharyn reveals to the Wall Street Journal that after employees rushed past her while she was out shopping one day, she and her husband had a productive conversation on the beaches of Mexico considering ways to focus store workers on shoppers.
That conversation, she said, is part of what led to a Home Depot policy called “the Power Hour,” a set period each day when workers have to help customers instead of doing administrative tasks.
Mr. Ellison is quick, however, to reassure the corporate world of the nature of Sharyn’s input, explaining that conversations with his wife didn’t lead directly to any changes in company strategy and that Home Depot executives came up with the Power Hour idea. The couple have a strong relationship, he said, and “any spouse that has a husband or wife that works in the service industry provides feedback.”
The decades-long demise of clothing retailer J.C. Penney is well documented by The New Rules of Retail author, Robin Lewis. Without delving too deep into the details, shifts in market demand, the decline of mall traffic, and the rise of e-commerce are all likely most to blame. It’s also important to note that beyond these factors, Penney executives over the last twenty years or so have made a slew of decisions that accelerated the companies expiry.
A precarious position for Marvin Ellison to step into, he left Home Depot for the fledgling business in 2014. His first nine months were spent learning the trade alongside J.C. Penney CEO, Mike Ullman – a man celebrated for at least being able to stop the financial bleeding. After this period of time, he was appointed CEO, having thrust upon him the responsibility of turning around one of America’s most iconic brands.
Believe it or not, up until Ellison came along, J.C. Penney’s men’s shoes were sold, not near the men’s clothing, but rather, next to women’s shoes. Considering ladies account for about 80% of the store’s clientele, the assumption has been that they’ll see a pair of loafers they’re man could use and buy them.
“It was a terrible idea,” says Marvin. “It took space away from women’s shoes, and it made it very difficult for men to want to buy shoes.”
Hoping to discover whether more men’s shoes could be sold if placed nearby men’s suits, Ellison invested in researching his hypothesis. The data came back supporting his modern notion, leading to Penney repositioning men’s shoes across their 1,000 plus stores. “That reset has been one of the smartest things we’ve done,” he said to reporters during a store walk-thru.
Next came bringing technology to inventory. For decades and on a monthly basis, corporate management had shipped thousands of units of product at a time to stores throughout North America, however, in the spirit of efficiency, Ellison established a tech team to introduce “demand-based logic.” Now, based on real-time sales data, Penney is not only capable of being more precise when stocking store shelves but they can even build up databases to better synchronize markdowns and promotions with changes in demand.
At this point, if you think you could run a retail Goliath the size of J.C. Penney, you might be right. All jokes aside, Ellison’s seemingly obvious early fixes increased revenue by 3% to $12.5 billion in his first year (an accomplishment of wizardry when taking into account the company’s unrelenting turn of the century downhill trend). Mr. Fix-It also brought appliances back to stores, injected fresh style into their on-site salons, and helped improve overall culture by ensuring executives wore Penney clothing while on the job.
Lessons in Leadership
Below, Marvin Ellison tells two stories that portray invaluable lessons on leadership that he has learned over the course of his career. The first describes an encounter with a high ranking boss who challenged his moral values. The second examines how he overcame a feeling of inferiority while doing business with the titans of modern industry.
I was working for a company and one of the most influential executives, whom I happened to be assigned to as my mentor, was a person who didn’t have great habits. As a matter of fact, one of the things he enjoyed doing most was going to the gentlemen’s club – otherwise known as strip clubs.
Now, I’m married. That’s not something that I stand for. I didn’t know this one day, and I’m out with him traveling for lunch and that’s where he took me. The first thing that I did was excuse myself, I go in the men’s room and I call Sharyn. I said, “you’ll never guess where I’m having lunch right now.” She asked, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know, I gotta figure out how to get outta here!”
I wasn’t very courageous that day, I just sat there very uncomfortably and we finally left. But the next time – and this guy could destroy my career, he had that kind of a powerful position – when he wanted to take a group of executives with him after work, I told him, “I’m not going; that is not who I am, that is not what I stand for, and I respect my wife too much.”
A good friend of mine pulled me aside and said, “you have just destroyed your career. This guy will never ever recommend you or support you.” I told him, “look, if my sole source of survival is based on this individual, I will take all the repercussions that come along with my decision.”
Fast forward, I make a decision that if the moral character of this company is based on individuals like this then I can’t stay here. Sharyn and I prayed about it and we left the company.
Because this person did not correct their behavior, ultimately their career didn’t end up well. Guess who I’ve had a chance to coach and mentor for the last few years? This individual.
Be the Best You
Be the best you in everything you do. I grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee, it’s a three traffic light town. As an African-American, I have spent time in business environments where no one looked like me. I’ve worked with colleagues with impressive and elite educational backgrounds and resumes.
I’ll have to admit to you, that early in my career, I had oftentimes felt slightly inferior that my background or my credentials just didn’t add up to the people around me. So what do you do when you perceive you don’t measure up? Well, you try to blend in, and that’s what I did.
On occasion, I would say to myself, “how could a guy from Brownsville, Tennessee compete in a corporate environment with colleagues who clerked on the Supreme Court or worked in the White House, studied abroad, or had degrees from elite Ivy League universities?”
Whenever I started to feel inferior, I remembered a message that my father gave to my siblings and I over and over again as we looked at our meager environment. He would say to us, “you are better than no one, but no one is better than you. When times get really tough, always remember, nobody can beat you, being you.”
In other words, leverage your unique abilities so you can stand out from your peers and colleagues. That’s what I did and that’s what I continue to do. I believe that every person has unique gifts and abilities that are exclusively theirs. Identify these natural talents, perfect them, and make these a part of your leadership portfolio every day and with every interaction you have.
Lowe’s Chief Executive
On May 22nd, 2018, Lowe’s released a press statement declaring Marvin Ellison their new Chief Executive beginning July 2nd of that year. “Marvin joins Lowe’s at a critical inflection point as we work to enhance our competitive position and capitalize on solid project demand in an evolving consumer environment. We look forward to shepherding an exciting new chapter for Lowe’s under Marvin’s leadership,” said lead director of the board, Marshall O. Larsen.
The announcement came somewhat as a shock to the team at J.C. Penney, the company he was actively the CEO of. With this being said, Penney was and still is a sinking ship due to a plethora of factors and decisions that have nothing to do with Mr. Ellison; despite his stay seeming short, he did a lot to help that business. In the end, it’s unfortunately so that anybody with just an ounce of ambition would take on the opportunity to lead Lowe’s over Penney.
On a more personal note, Ellison had a chip on his shoulder when it came to competing against a rival such as Home Depot. He had been passed over for an executive leadership role there earlier in his career and what an act of fate it was that he’d get the chance to show them what they missed out on.
“I am thrilled to take on the role as Lowe’s next president and CEO. Working closely with Lowe’s board, management team and the more than 310,000 talented employees, I believe we will not just compete, but win in today’s complex retail environment,” Ellison said in a statement. “Together, we will leverage Lowe’s omni-channel capabilities to deliver the most simple and seamless customer experiences as we execute with purpose and put the customer first in everything we do.”
Since Marvin Ellison took over as Chief Executive in July of 2018, Lowe’s stock value has increased from $95 a share to $163.78 per share as of September 2020. At the time of writing, the company is currently ranked 40 on Fortune’s list of America’s 500 largest corporations by total revenue.
If you enjoyed this story on the life of Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison, check out our biography of Macy’s CEO, Jeff Gennette.