How Marvin Ellison became “The King of Retail” and the only Black CEO to lead 2 Fortune 500 companies

BY Preta Peace Namasaba October 13, 2023 1:56 PM EDT
Marvin Ellison. Photo source: Lowe's
Marvin Ellison. Photo source: Lowe's

Out of the approximately 1800 individuals who have held the position of CEO at Fortune 500 companies, only 19 have been of Black. Marvin Ellison stands out as a remarkable figure in this landscape, holding the distinction of being the first and only Black CEO to lead two Fortune 500 companies. Currently at the helm of Lowe’s, a prominent home improvement company, he previously led J.C. Penney.

The middle child of seven children, Ellison grew up poor in segregated rural Tennessee. It was not until the age of six that his family’s home was equipped with indoor plumbing, illustrating the modest circumstances in which he was raised. His family’s livelihood was rooted in sharecropping, with his father eventually transitioning to a career as a door-to-door insurance salesman. The Ellison family also shared their musical talents, performing gospel music throughout the Southeast as the “Ellison Family,” with Marvin Ellison contributing his skills on the bass guitar.

“Every day, my father got up and went to work with a great attitude, juggling as many as three jobs to help pay the bills and support his family, while refusing the availability of government assistance. As a young black man growing up in a segregated rural community, his tremendous work ethic left a lasting impression on me. My parents would often say, ‘Don’t let your surroundings dictate your future,’ and emphasized education as the path out of poverty. I credit my parents’ positive influence for my trajectory in life and putting me on a path that led me to where I am today.”

Marvin Ellison in Emory University

As a first-generation high school graduate, Marvin Ellison’s parents instilled in him the belief that education held the key to escaping poverty. They encouraged him to dream beyond the confines of their economically challenged hometown. His journey into the professional world began with his first job at a Target store, where he worked as a security officer, earning $4.35 per hour.

Fate smiled upon him when he gained admission to the University of Memphis as a business major. Determined to finance his education, Ellison worked tirelessly, extending his academic journey to almost six years as he balanced school with various jobs. These roles included overnight shifts at a convenience store, janitorial work at a women’s department store, and driving a plumbing supplies truck during the summer. Eventually, Ellison graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Memphis, a journey that has come full circle as he now serves on its board of trustees.

After completing his education, Ellison returned to Target, where he dedicated fifteen years to the company. During his tenure, he held diverse operational and leadership positions, ranging from store associate to corporate director of Asset Production. In 2002, he made a significant career move to Home Depot, assuming the role of senior vice president of global logistics. His responsibilities expanded, and he eventually became the executive vice president of U.S. stores, overseeing a vast network of over 2,000 stores. In this role, Ellison implemented transformative changes, significantly enhancing customer service and operational efficiency throughout the organization.

In 2014, Marvin Ellison achieved a remarkable milestone by joining the select group of African-American Fortune 500 CEOs when he was appointed Chairman and CEO of J.C. Penney. Taking the helm of a company facing declining sales, Ellison initiated a digital transformation of JCPenney’s e-commerce distribution while refocusing on its core customer base. Under his leadership, the company introduced 600 appliance showrooms, 500 mattress shops, and Ashley furniture, initiatives that bolstered store traffic and sales. Ellison successfully drove sales growth, reduced debt, and delivered positive adjusted earnings per share during his tenure.

Marvin Ellison’s subsequent appointment as President and CEO of Lowe’s Companies made history, marking him as the first and only Black CEO to lead two Fortune 500 companies. At the helm of the second-largest hardware and home improvement store chain in North America, he oversees more than 1,700 stores and approximately 300,000 associates in the United States.

Ellison has spearheaded Lowe’s digital revolution, empowering customers with diverse shopping options. He revitalized the company’s outdated website and expanded its engagement with professional contractors, particularly during the challenges of the pandemic. Additionally, he has promoted diversity and inclusion within Lowe’s, with 55% of its executive leaders and 60% of its board members representing female or ethnically diverse backgrounds. In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the company initiated conversations about racial issues with its employees and invested $55 million in minority-owned businesses, demonstrating Ellison’s commitment to progress and inclusivity.

“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.”

Marvin Ellison in CBS News

In addition to his remarkable corporate achievements, Ellison’s commitment to civic leadership is equally impressive. He holds positions on the board of directors for prominent organizations, including Lowes, FedEx Corporation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and the National Retail Federation. In recognition of his outstanding contributions, Ellison was honored with the National Retail Federation’s Visionary Award in 2023.