Marvin Ellison, Chairman and CEO, Lowe’s Companies, Inc. – Drawing From His Pathway to Success, a Guide to Help Others Achieve the Same

by Jasmine Brown

In life, our experiences shape who we are. For Marvin Ellison, chairman and chief executive officer of Lowe’s, his leadership style and understanding of the retail industry came from his upbringing, curiosity and years of experience. Now, as a Fortune 500 CEO, he’s instrumental in providing the same type of opportunities he received to others.

Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison visits a local Lowe’s store to thank store employees for taking care of the customers.

Education is the Pathway to Success

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s in Brownsville, Tennessee was where it all began for Ellison. Segregation was very much present during that time. His father did not graduate from high school, while his mother, the oldest of 16 children, did get the opportunity to receive her high school diploma. She was the first person in her family to graduate high school. Both of his parents were sharecroppers.

It was Ellison’s parents that pushed him and his six siblings to pursue a college education. Ellison has previously mentioned in interviews that his parents instilled in them to not allow their surroundings to limit  what their future holds. Where he lived, Ellison said he could not see success around him.

He told WREG in 2017, “The one thing they both taught us was the power of education and irrespective of your surroundings, your gender, your ethnicity, color of your skin. That education unlocked all the doors and can lead you out of poverty.”

How did Ellison go from being Black in segregated Brownsville to being a Black CEO of not only one Fortune 500 company in 2018, but also the CEO of JCPenney Co. in 2014? It all started while he was obtaining his undergraduate degree.

To pay for college tuition, books, and room and board at the University of Memphis, Ellison worked many jobs. He was a janitor, truck driver, warehouse operator, and convenience store clerk all before he worked in security at Target. That $4.35 an hour job was a testament for Ellison, as it led to 15 more years with the retailer. He told The Charlotte Observer in 2018 that this position was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

As an employee with Target, he was curious about how the retail industry operates from an associate perspective, so he sought lateral opportunities to work in different departments, but also worked his way up. By the time he left Target, he was the corporation’s senior vice president of the Loss Prevention Department.

In 2002, Ellison took what he learned and joined The Home Depot, Inc. During that time, then CEO Bob Nardelli took interest in him, including investing in Ellison’s graduate education at Emory University’s business school. By 2008, Ellison was named The Home Depot’s executive vice president of U.S. stores.

He stayed with his now competitor for a total of 12 years and joined JCPenney Co. as their chairman and CEO in 2014. As a kid, Ellison remembers going to JCPenney for special times of the year, such as Christmas and Easter. It was not a store that his family could regularly afford. With the goal of raising profits at the nationwide department store, Ellison’s mother came to mind when thinking of the average customer.

“My mother was a master at stretching the dollar,” Ellison told WREG in 2017. “I really identify with the customers because that customer is my mother. That customer is my aunt and my uncle. It’s how I grew up and so there’s a real pure and authentic connection between me and JCPenney based just on how I grew up.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 23: Sharyn Ellison and Marvin Ellison attend the Time 100 Gala 2019 at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Improving the Business

When Ellison joined Lowe’s in 2018 as the president and CEO, he concentrated on not just the business, but also the company’s more than 300,000 associates and the customers. At that time, Lowe’s was operating on a platform that was 10 years old. Under Ellison’s leadership, the Lowe’s team updated the eCommerce system and website, implemented a curbside pickup program and offered e-receipts to customers. The idea of business for Lowe’s shifted to a more customer-centric approach, providing goods for the customer in the ways they would like to shop. Lowe’s also implemented a ”Total Home” strategy, offering customers everything they need to make their homes complete.

Ellison also made it a priority to diversify the company. One of his goals was to increase the number of minorities serving in VP roles and above. When he joined Lowe’s that number was eight. Now, there are more minorities and women serving at these levels in the company, including in top executive roles. Another goal was investing in associates by creating succession planning. One such way that Lowe’s is investing in current and future associates is through their new debt-free education program.

In April 2022, the company announced that full- and part-time employees are eligible to enroll in over 50 academic programs at 23 universities and education providers to obtain undergraduate degrees, finish high school, take college prep or English language courses, all at no cost to them. Among the 23 universities are historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic serving institutions. This program is designed to allow associates to grow in their current positions, as well as grow for future positions in the company.

Along with the 50 debt-free programs, Lowe’s offers additional incentives for all full-time and part-time associates to continue their learning. Lowe’s provides direct payments of up to $2,500 annually in tuition assistance for more than 165 online academic programs, and up to $2,500 in tuition reimbursement to associates who pay out-of-pocket education costs for in-person learning programs. Also, the company’s Track to the Trades program covers full tuition for associates looking to gain pre-apprentice certificates in skilled trades.

“I know firsthand the power of education and the impact it has when someone empowers you to go out and take on life’s challenges,” Ellison said in an April 2022 press release announcing Lowe’s commitment to investing $9 million in select schools, including HBCUs, and scholarship programs to help underrepresented students. With this scholarship funding, Lowe’s hopes to provide greater access to higher education, as well as a pathway to employment at Lowe’s.

Since 2009, through partnerships with the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and HBCUs including LeMoyne-Owen College, Tennessee State University, North Carolina Central University and Paul Quinn College, Lowe’s has donated more than $17 million in scholarships and other investments.

Since 2018, Lowe’s has invested over $2 billion in incremental wage and equity programs for frontline associates.

Susan Hart, a core member of Spencer Stuart’s North American Board and CEO practices, sits down to discuss retail and leadership with Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show.

Giving Back

Also under Ellison’s leadership, Lowe’s has supported many minority small business owners before and during the pandemic. Lowe’s has contributed millions of dollars in grants to minorities and women-owned businesses, including $25 million in 2020 to help diverse business owners reopen during the pandemic and another $1.1 billion to support first responders, provide grants to small businesses and more.

Diversity in the Workplace

One thing that Ellison believes is important in corporate America today is adding diversity, however, he believes creating an environment of diversity requires more than just saying it, but doing it. The Associated Press asked Ellison in 2021 why there were not more Black CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.

“I think it screams missed opportunity. I don’t believe I am one of the [three] most talented Black executives in America. There are plenty of uniquely talented individuals out there that simply need an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership ability and their ability to make a contribution to their company or to their industry. I think that part of the solution should be companies, including Lowe’s, should continue to improve how they develop talent, how they source talent, and how they evaluate individuals for upward mobility.”

“It is my obligation to be really successful so I can make it easier for the next person out there who’s going to be sitting in a similar seat. And that’s exactly what I am trying to do when I come to work every day.”

Ellison is creating pathways for other associates who look just like him to have the same opportunity to reach goals in their careers. With the opportunities he and Lowe’s are providing for hundreds of thousands of employees and students, we should hope to see another Black Fortune 500 CEO emerge.

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