Marvin Ellison shares his playbook
Lowe’s infrastructure has come a long way in two years, says CEO Marvin Ellison. But the corporate accomplishment that sparks the most pride in the Lowe’s CEO, he said, is the way the Mooresville, N.C.-based company has supported communities and employees during a difficult 2020.
Speaking during a virtual presentation at the National Retail Federation’s virtual Big Show on Thursday, Ellison hit on at least a half-dozen keys to retail success in less than a half hour. And it all began by comparing retail operations with home construction.
“It starts with a really stable and solid foundation,” he said. “If you don’t have a robust labor management system, if you don’t have a strong stable IT infrastructure, if you don’t have an eCommerce platform that gives you agility, if you don’t have products that speak to customers from a value and quality perspective, it’s really difficult to be effective in retail — whether its 2021 or 1921.”
The CEO said that when he came to Lowe’s (from J.C. Penny, and before that from Home Depot), he knew that he was arriving at a company with a strong balance sheet and a great brand. But he was surprised by some of the things Lowe’s couldn’t do.
“Two years ago we couldn’t even offer a customer an eReceipt,” he said. “Two years ago, it was virtually impossible for us to have an associates’ schedule in a store that basically fit customers’ shopping and demand patterns, much less the associate’s lifestyle. We had schedules literally being templated at the corporate office for every store in the company, and just pushed them down to the field.
“And as recently as last year, our eCommerce platform was on a decade-old infrastructure. So think about your computer today vs. your computer 10 years ago, and that’s the equivalent of what a multi-billion dollar eCommerce platform was sitting on."
In an interview with NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay, Ellison celebrated his family background that helped shape his management style. Ellison grew up in a working class, family in rural West Tennessee. And that environment, he says, has given him a perspective on the needs of the frontline employees.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that in probably the most challenging year both professionally and personally that many of us have lived through, in 2020 as a company we wanted to make a difference,” Ellison said. “I’m proud to say that we’ve dedicated and committed over $1.1 billion in assistance to our associates, to our communities to first responders, to small businesses with grants, and a litany of other constituencies, because we believe it’s just the right thing to do.
“Big companies have the ability to step in and help out where they can,” Ellison continued. “We definitely can’t solve all the problems. But I’m proud we took enormous steps to make sure we played a role in making this very difficult year a much better one for people who need it the most.”
The NRF presentation was part of a series of interviews with retail leaders. Ellison’s presentation carried the description: “The power of vision to reshape retail and the consumer experience.” Ellison made clear that his vision revolves around the customer.
"As we think about the future, we ask one simple question: 'What is in the best interest of our customers?' So Everything we try to do is not about our competition, it’s not trying to predict what’s going to happen in the [economy], it’s really more about being customer centric.”
Toward that end, the retailer recently introduced a Total Home strategy. Ellison describes it this way: “We have now a vision that we want to be able to provide a total Home solution, they can go to Lowe’s and get anything they need for their home. Beyond your bathroom remodel, we want to provide all your textiles as well. If you get your kitchen remodeled, we want to provide you every element to make that kitchen functional, and make it something that’s going to meet your dreams and aspirations.”
During his presentation, Ellison gave a couple of specific shout outs to colleagues for their contributions. Marisa Thalberg, executive VP and chief brand and marketing officer, received credit for her ideas that led to a vendor development and diversity program called “Making it with Lowe’s.” The program, which will return in 2021, benefited from the involvement of Daymond John, from the television show Shark Tank.
Also, Ellison credited CIO Semantini Godbole for recognizing that the most effective technology is often the kind that no one sees. “It’s behind the curtain,” Ellison said. “And all the customer knows is that it’s really simple.”