From Store-Level LP Associate to EVP of Stores

EDITORS NOTE: At the time of this interview in 2009, Marvin Ellison was executive vice president of U.S. stores at The Home Depot and the first African-American in Home Depot’s executive suites in the company’s history. As one of six executive vice presidents, Ellison will be in charge of nearly 2,000 stores in the United States, PuertoRico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Ellison began his career in Targets loss prevention organization while still in college. After fifteen years with Target, he joined Home Depot in 2002 as vice president of loss prevention. He has since been promoted to vice president of logistics, senior vice president of global logistics, and, most recently, president of Home Depot’s Northern Division.

In addition to his bachelors degree in business and marketing from the University of Memphis, Ellison earned an MBA from Emory University while working at Home Depot.

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EDITOR: Tell us about your current role at The Home Depot.

ELLISON: I’m responsible for the sales and profit of the 2,000 U.S. stores for Home Depot, including stores in the fifty states, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands. Within those 2,000 stores, the most important asset we have is the associates that interact with customers on a day-in, day-out basis.

EDITOR: Describe the divisional structure that reports to you?

ELLISON: In The Home Depot organization, the U.S. is divided into three operating divisions–the southern, northern, and western divisions. Within those divisions, we have nineteen regions run by regional vice presidents. Within those regions is a structure of district managers reporting to the regions.

EDITOR: With today’s economic challenges, every company is faced with managing expenses and resources differently. How do you balance high expectations with fewer resources?

ELLISON: I always use a quote that I read many years ago: If you dontknow where youre going, any road will take you there. You have to startwith your priorities as an organization. For Home Depot, we have statedthat our priority starts with the customer. We look at everything we cando to serve the customers to their expectations while at the same timebeing as fiscally responsible as we can be in all aspects of the business

So when we look at staff reductions, which like most large companieswe will have to look at, we always look first at the non-customer facingparts of the business. These are the positions that dont interactwith customers and are not in the stores. If and when we haveto look at the stores, we try to find productivity by improvingprocesses within the supply chain, within the back officeoperations, so we can free up more people to serve customerson the sales floor. It always starts with understanding what ourultimate priority is and then trying to find ways to meet thatpriority while making necessary cuts.

EDITOR: Most companies are currently faced with expensechallenges. As a result, loss prevention and asset protection havebeen hit. There are LP professionals across the country who findthemselves without jobs. As a senior executive with experienceat several companies, do you have advice for individuals who arenow seeking employment?

ELLISON: In my twenty-five-plus years of retail, I have been ina similar situation. My best advice for anyone who is looking toredefine his or her career or looking for a place to get startedagain is to go to a company that is committed to your function,whether that function is loss prevention, risk management,or safety. It is important that the company is committed toyour craft and understands the value of what you do. It isalso important that you sharpen your skill set so that youhave a broader range of skills. It is important not to be onedimensional.

The great thing about asset protection and loss preventionis that it teaches us a broad range of skills. Sometimes, if yourelooking for a new opportunity, you may have to enter a companyin a different position. You can utilize those other skills to justre-emerge into an organization. You want be in a position whereyou can learn and grow. In addition, good companies are alwayslooking for great leaders. And the one thing that I have learnedis that leadership skill is transferable from position to position.

EDITOR: In economic times like these, do you set differentpriorities for your LP organization than you might otherwise?

This is the toughest retail economysince the Great Depression. I tell myteam, We cant control the economy.We cant control interest rates. Wecant control the housing market. Wecant control unemployment. But wecan control how we execute. We cancontrol how we live. We can controlhow we treat our team. We cancontrol being a positive influence onthe environment. Control the thingsyou can control. Dont spend timefocusing on the things that you cantcontrol. Stay within yourself and doyour best to make your environment aspositive as possible

ELLISON: Asset protection at the Home Depot reports intothe store organization. Ive said in a recent conference call tomy entire field asset protection team that it is important to berelevant. In this or any tough economic environment, businessowners are looking for leaders who will help them deliversuccess in their business. As asset protection leaders, you haveto educate your store leaders on the value you bring to theoverall profitability of their business. That is how you becomerelevant in a tough economic environment

An example of this is rather than going to a store manageror district manager and talking about shrink reduction, theft,and fraud, talk about profit. Talk about the steps you and yourteam are taking to keep the store in stock. Talk about the returnyour team delivers on every AP-related investment, includingstaffing, CCTV, EAS, et cetera. There is no greater impact to grossmargin or the profitability of any business unit than reduction ofinventory shrink, workers comp, and general liability claims, inthat order.
It is also important to understand what the operatorsare being reviewed on. Understand the operators priorities.Articulate to them about the value that you and your team bringto their overall organization. Talk in the stores language, not intechnical asset protection language. Find ways to be in a positionso that the organization cannot survive without you. Talkabout how the profit model does not work if the stores do notcontinue to reduce shrink, fraud, and accidents.

EDITOR: As you look back on your career in seniormanagement, are there leadership principles and managementskills that you brought from your asset protection background?

ELLISON: There are fundamental things that have beeninvaluable in the different roles Ive taken on outside of assetprotection. The first one is making sure that you are verythorough and detail oriented. I learned as a young investigator inassets protection the value of being detailed and thorough. Thathabit of disciplined attention to detail pays huge dividends forme right now

The second important thing is to understand people. Inorder to be an effective assets protection leader, you must havevery effective people skills. These people skills will assist inyour ability to influence. As I have been blessed to climb thecorporate ladder, the ability to influence has played a major rolein my success.v

I spent my entire asset protection career trying to findways to reduce inventory shrink. The only way I could figurethat out was to continue to get deeper and deeper into theunderstanding of how the retail operation worked. Today, as anoperator responsible for generating revenue, I take the technicalknowledge I learned in asset protection and put a differentspin on it.

EDITOR: How did you get started in asset protection?

ELLISON: I was going to college at the University of Memphisand looking for a part-time job. I found a position at TargetStores as a part-time store security officer posted in theuniversitys employment office. I worked in that role until Igraduated. There was a recession at that time and there werenot a lot of really good jobs. I was enjoying what I was doing atTarget and was able to work more hours. I was offered an assetprotection manager position in one of the Target stores. Afterfifteen years at Target, I had worked my way to director of assetprotection of stores. In 2002 I was fortunate to join the HomeDepot as the VP of loss prevention.

EDITOR: As you think back, what were the key learnings youpicked up at Target?

ELLISON: I had a great education in asset protection at Target. Ispent most of my professional career working with King Rogers.I was fortunate that I met King early in my career. He had a greatinfluence over my career as a young executive trying to learnand develop. So when I transitioned to the Home Depot, I hada good idea of what a professional, first-class asset protectiondepartment should look like because of the time I spent underthe tutelage of King Rogers

When I came to Home Depot, my goal was to replicate thatprofessional focus of an asset protection team. It starts withhaving a strong focus on operational efficiency, on theft, and onfraud. Those three things were my driving principles for HomeDepot.

EDITOR: What were your initial challenges coming to HomeDepot?

ELLISON: The challenge was that Home Depot had always beena decentralized company. The divisions were autonomous andthe asset protection functions were autonomous as well with nocommon policies, procedures, or directives. There was no trueunderstanding of what an effective, efficient asset protectionfunction looked like. Fortunately for me, there were alreadysome great asset protection leaders in the company. I didntneed to change a lot of people. We had talented people herewho understood the company well and had solid backgrounds inasset protection. So with the talented leaders who were here anda few folks I brought in, we were able to build a strongdepartment. We brought in state-of-the-art CCTV equipment andcase-management systems. This asset protection team deliveredsome of the best performance of any big-box retailer over thethree-year period that I ran the department. [See Retooling theLP Strategy at Home Depot March-April 2004.]

EDITOR: When did you realize that you wanted to expand yourcareer and shift to a different role?

ELLISON: When I came to Home Depot, I believed this wouldbe a great opportunity to diversify. I set a few goals for myself.The initial goals were to stabilize the asset protection team,create a focus on shrink reduction, and deliver sustainableresults. A personal goal was to broaden my business knowledgeby going back to school and getting an MBA. With the companyssupport, I was able to complete my MBA at Emory University.

Then the company approached me with an opportunityto be the VP of logistics. I had spent time at Home Depotworking with the logistics functions to create a more efficient,process-oriented environment that would help us reduce theshrink in our supply chain. The company saw that I had a goodgrasp of the operations side of logistics, and they asked me totake it over.

EDITOR: Did you have a learning curve as you stepped awayfrom asset protection?

My best advice for anyone who islooking to redefine his or her career orlooking for a place to get started againis to go to a company that is committedto your function, whether that functionis loss prevention, risk management,or safety. It is important that thecompany is committed to your craft andunderstands the value of what you do.It is also important that you sharpenyour skill set so that you have a broaderrange of skills. It is important not to beone dimensional.

ELLISON: There was a learning curve, but I followed the samecore principles. I worked with a team of leaders to understandwhat the current issues were. I went into the field organizationand met with the frontline leaders to understand what theyfelt we should do to be a more effective team. We brought infield and corporate leaders and agreed on our core missionand objectives. We worked to build consistent, tactical thingswe would do every day, week, and month, by position. Wecreated strong and specific measurements and accountabilityto determine if we were achieving our objectives. I carried overthe same process from asset protection to logistics. We hadgreat success. I was then promoted to take on the internationalshipping part of the supply chain.

EDITOR: Loss prevention professionals are sometimes reluctantto shift to a cross-functional position because they dont thinkthey have the expertise in that new discipline. Do you believe itis more the leadership and management traits and commitmentthat is more important than the specific technical expertise?

ELLISON: If you are an effective asset protection leader, thatleadership is transferable. If a person has core fundamentalleadership skills, good people selection skills; if youre ableto take complexity and find simple ways to execute out ofcomplexity; if you can be a courageous leader in solvingproblems and dealing with issues; if you have attention to detail;if you have a curiosityI call it intellectual curiosityand havea desire to broaden your horizons; then the technical side is notthat difficult.

You could argue that the technical aspects of asset protectionare equally as challenging, if not more so, as other technicalaspects of the retail business. If you possess intellectual curiosityand like trying different things, Id recommend to anyone thattrying a different part of the retail business is worth a shot. Aftera few years, you can always go back into asset protection as amuch more well-rounded and effective leader.

EDITOR: You are obviously a person who places great value onhigher education. Many asset protection professionals have twoor three years of work toward their undergraduate degree, butthink they are not able to balance their home and work demandsto finish their degree. If you could look them in the eye, whatadvice would you give them?

ELLISON: I would say that its all about the personalcommitment you make to yourself. Personally, I felt that if Iwas going to transition into operations and achieve the levelof success that I desired in my heart, it was important to me toget a broader education in business. I made that commitment.Candidly, getting the MBA has helped me compete with otherswho have spent more years on the operations side. So the MBAdegree gave me greater knowledge abut business and morecredibility.

At the same time, I would say getting a degree is not the onlyway to become a more well-rounded person. Ive always tried tostay abreast of the broader aspects of business by what I read,watch on television, and by spending time with people who havedifferent skill sets than I do. As an asset protection professional,you have the opportunity to spend time with and ask questionsof merchants and operators. As I said, intellectual curiosity is agreat trait because it allows you to learn about things that are notcurrently your responsibility.

EDITOR: Looking back on your career, what has been yourfavorite job so far?

ELLISON: Ive enjoyed so many of the jobs that Ive had. I donthave bad days. I dont have bad jobs. Im an eternal optimist. Ifeel that if you can get talented people aligned around a missionwith specific objectives, and if you can be a leader who caninspire them to do more than they believe they can do, you canturn any situation into a positive.

I remember the first store I was assigned to as an assetprotection manager. I felt like I was king of the world. I feltthe same way when I was promoted to district asset protectionmanager. I could say that about every job Ive had. Here at HomeDepot, being named division president for 650 stores was a greatjob because for the first time in my career I had responsibilityfor profit and sales and for the entire team of a large part of thecompany. I was fortunate to have great people working with me.I was equally blessed to be named the EVP of U.S. stores for TheHome Depot. That is due to the team of people I worked with inthe northern division who delivered outstanding results.

EDITOR: You are an inspiration to many in the loss preventionand asset protection field. I know that The Home Depot, andyou personally, are involved in charities and community service.

ELLISON: The Home Depot is built on values. Its a companythat cares about its associates and demonstrates caring byits actions on a continual basis. The Home Depot is a greatcorporate citizen. Were embarking on a campaign to raise amillion dollars for a permanent home for the papers of the lateDr. Martin Luther King. We also donate thousands of hours oftime to communities around the country, building playgrounds,remodeling schools, weatherizing the homes of elderly citizens.We believe that to be a successful part of the community,we have to be a great corporate citizen and help make theenvironment were in better.

Im also proud and privileged to have two kids and a wifewho keep me really busy. Im active in my church, which isimportant to me. For me to be successful at work, it is importantfor me to have a well-balanced life around work, community,family and religion. This helps me to be totally fulfilled in allaspects of my life.

The Home Depot is built on values. Its acompany that cares about its associatesand demonstrates caring by its actionson a continual basis. The Home Depot isa great corporate citizen.Were embarking on a campaignto raise a million dollars for apermanent home for the papersof the late Dr. Martin Luther King.

EDITOR: In the retail world right now, there are people whoare demoralized as they see retailers going bankrupt. They areworried about their jobs. As an organization leader, what doyou say to people to keep their morale positive so that they cancontinue to be productive?

ELLISON: This is the toughest retail economy since the GreatDepression. When Im out in our stores conducting town hallsand talking about what were trying to accomplish, I tell theassociates that it is important to stay focused on their job. Ifeach person, including myself, comes to work every day beingcommitted to making the best effort possible and to doingeverything within your power to make their environmentproductive, you will find a way to be successful

I tell my team, We cant control the economy. We cantcontrol interest rates. We cant control the housing market. Wecant control unemployment. But we can control how weexecute. We can control how we live. We can control how wetreat our team. We can control being a positive influence on theenvironment. Control the things you can control. Dont spendtime focusing on the things that you cant control. Stay withinyourself and do your best to make your environment as positiveas possible.

If you are an effective asset protection leader,that leadership is transferable. If a person hascore fundamental leadership skills, good peopleselection skills; if youre able to take complexityand find simple ways to execute out of complexity; ifyou can be a courageous leader in solving problemsand dealing with issues; if you have attention todetail; if you have a curiosityI call it intellectualcuriosityand have a desire to broaden yourhorizons; then the technical side is not that difficult

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