A Penney Saved … Shop Floor Leadership

I’m always looking for stories about leaders who “get it”. In my book Peerless, we profiled 10 executives in widely divergent industries. The common theme is that they were invested first in their culture and corporate purpose. This is a story about an executive who “gets it”.
From March 1, 2016 Fortune: If anybody can relate to those customers, it’s Marvin Ellison. Ellison, one of only five after the African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500, grew up in Brownsville Tennessee, a two-stoplight town between Memphis and Nashville that was segregated well into the 1980s. He’s one of seven children, and his family was poor. His father at one point worked three jobs at once, too proud to take government assistance.  Still the Ellison family would shop twice a year at J. C. Penney, first for back-to-school clothes and then at Christmas. The family also performed as a gospel act and got its stage outfits there too.
Who’s Marvin Ellison? Since October 2014 he has been the latest J. C. Penney CEO.  I say latest because the former CEO lasted about two years, before Penney’s board recycled a former CEO, Mike Ullman, prior to Ellison. Everything is broken there today: $5 billion long-term debt, weak e-commerce, a needed merchandise makeover and lower traffic in traditional malls. Those are the facts.
It’s interesting that Penney’s troubles, aggravated by the 2008 recession, worsened when hired gun executives went counter to Penney’s culture and customer allegiances. The Fortune article gave me an important hint about Ellison’s understanding of corporate culture: Ellison’s retail career started during college, almost by accident. To help pay for books and rent, he took a part-time job as a security officer at target at $4.35 an hour. That gig turned into 15 years at the retailer, as he climbed the ranks in theft prevention. Those early jobs gave Ellison 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. But the jobs also taught him something that was to shape his management style: too many managers don’t listen to the troops on the front lines ( think Shop Floor ), the workers in stores. Ellison had tons of ideas but didn’t share them with managers, he says, because they wouldn’t ask.
In 2002 Ellison joined Home Depot and sought advice from former CEO and Chair Bernie Marcus. They went on the road together for store visits ( shop floor ) and conversations about strategy and culture. He was a good student … in 2007 Ellison was named head of U.S. stores for Home Depot.
When hired by Penney’s, Ullman, a key figure in the hiring process, said ”while Ellison may not know merchandising inside and out, he is self-aware enough to surround himself with people who do. He knows who he is and exactly what he wants to accomplish.”
Ellison’s first steps at Penney’s? He conducted 60 employee town halls and visited 100 stores. In his face-to-face meetings he noticed a disconnect between Penney’s executives and store employees. Fortune: Face-to-face interaction helped Ellison quickly spot disconnects between Penney’s executives and store employees. Early on, he was irked to see senior management in stores wearing designer clothing far beyond the budget of a typical staffer or customer. A snappy dresser himself, Ellison implemented a rule requiring executives to wear J.C. Penney-made clothes when they visit stores and to wear the same name tag store workers do.
JC+Penney+Revamps+Brand+Strategy+r3ZPeEF95NYlQ: How do retail establishments attract and retain customers?
A: They care and appreciate that you shop in their stores.
Q: and who demonstrates that caring on the “shopfloor”?
A: The store employees
Q: Who instills caring in them?
A: Company leadership!
Best wishes, Marvin Ellison!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

We help executives impart elevated meaning to work … and life Here's how we do it