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Lowe’s CEO addresses race, inflation and vaccine mandates

December 9, 2021 GMT
This image provided by Lowe's shows CEO Marvin Ellison in 2019. Ellison grew up in segregated rural Tennessee. His father was a sharecropper-turned-insurance salesman and his mother was one of the first in their family to graduate from high school. Today at 55, Ellison stands out as one of only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs, bringing with him 35 years of retail experience including as the former CEO of J.C. Penney and various senior operations roles at rival Home Depot. (Lowes via AP)
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This image provided by Lowe's shows CEO Marvin Ellison in 2019. Ellison grew up in segregated rural Tennessee. His father was a sharecropper-turned-insurance salesman and his mother was one of the first in their family to graduate from high school. Today at 55, Ellison stands out as one of only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs, bringing with him 35 years of retail experience including as the former CEO of J.C. Penney and various senior operations roles at rival Home Depot. (Lowes via AP)
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This image provided by Lowe's shows CEO Marvin Ellison in 2019. Ellison grew up in segregated rural Tennessee. His father was a sharecropper-turned-insurance salesman and his mother was one of the first in their family to graduate from high school. Today at 55, Ellison stands out as one of only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs, bringing with him 35 years of retail experience including as the former CEO of J.C. Penney and various senior operations roles at rival Home Depot. (Lowes via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison personally knows about racism.

He grew up in segregated rural Tennessee. His father was a sharecropper-turned-insurance salesman and his mother was one of the first in their family to graduate from high school. Both parents taught him and his six siblings to never allow their surroundings to limit their expectations or their vision of what they could be.

Today at 55, Ellison stands out as one of only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs, bringing with him 35 years of retail experience including as the former CEO of J.C. Penney and various senior operations roles at rival Home Depot.

When he took over the helm of Lowe’s in 2018, Ellison diversified the company’s ranks to better reflect its customer base. Now, 55% of its executive leaders and 60% of its board are female or ethnically diverse.

Following the police killing of George Floyd, Lowe’s began holding meetings with employees to create “comfortable″ settings to have “uncomfortable” conversations about race; it also invested $55 million in minority-owned businesses.

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Ellison’s decision three years ago to overhaul an antiquated website and increase Lowe’s business with professional customers like electricians helped the company to pivot during the pandemic, when more people were relying on online services. And even as Lowe’s now deals with industrywide supply chain issues and higher costs, it’s using its clout to keep holiday shelves stocked while trying to tame inflation at its stores.

The Associated Press interviewed Ellison on a wide variety of topics, including his thoughts on racial diversity in Corporate America, the federal mandate to vaccinate-or-test workers, its online business and inflation. Lowe’s hasn’t required vaccines or testing ahead of the mandate, but Ellison says he’ll comply with any federal regulations. His responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. Why aren’t there more Black Fortune 500 CEOs?

A. 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.

Q. You had publicly said that you felt exhausted in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. Can you talk about that?

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A. I think I can speak for any Black person, CEO or otherwise, that when you see an episode like the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that occurs around the country, it is exhausting. We all, as citizens of this country, want to see our environment, the places we live and the people we love protected. And we want to see a better life for our children and grandchildren from what we have had. But within that exhaustion, I want to make sure that I take the lead within my own company to make sure that I educate and I put leaders in position that can allow us to be a better company.

Q. Do you think Corporate America has done enough in the aftermath of Floyd?

A. I don’t judge Corporate America. I judge Lowe’s. I’m not going to get out and start to criticize or educate other companies because I’ve got my hands full right here with 350,000 associates that stretch all 50 states and have tons of complexity. What I can tell you about is what Lowe’s has done, and I think we’ve made incredible progress. I think we’ve done it because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for business.

Q. How concerned are you about the omicron variant?

A. We control what we control. So I can’t control the current variant. I can’t control future variants, but I can control the health and safety of the associates and the customers. I can control what we do to support our associates. We’re trying to stay laser focused on that. We’re just trying to continue to learn, be as agile as possible and try to manage the business throughout these uncertain times.

Q. What’s your vision for online?

A. We want to serve a customer any way they choose to shop. We had an inability to do that when I started over three years ago because our online infrastructure was built on a decade-old platform. If we’ve learned nothing from the pandemic, we’ve learned that customers require options and choices on how they choose to shop and any retailer that doesn’t provide those options and choices in a way that take friction points out the customer is going to lose.

Q. How has inflation affected shopping habits?

A. Earlier in the year, we saw record inflation where lumber prices were spiking so high that the typical do-it-yourself customer just basically said, ‘I will delay this project because it’s just too expensive to build that deck.’ Then later in the year we saw record deflation. Prices dropped almost as fast as they rose. And so the moment that happened, you saw the do-it-yourself customers come back into the marketplace and start to buy again.

Q. Do you think the government should require vaccine mandates and testing at companies?

A. What we’re going to do at Lowe’s is we’re going to be compliant to any government requirement. If the mandate comes from OSHA for us as a retailer, we’re going to spend zero time debating whether or not the government has the right to do it. We’re just going to execute it because that’s the role we have to play. Thus far, we don’t have any concerns relative to this impeding our staff or limiting our ability to run our business or serve our customers.

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