From Haywood County to Wall Street: My journey

Chairman and CEO of Lowe’s Companies Inc.

The Ellison Family Gospel Group – circa 1976

When I was 6 years old, I could walk out my front door, look north, south, east and west and not see anything that looked like success. Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a sharecropper’s son from Brownsville, Tennessee, I had little expectation of becoming the first black chairman and CEO of two Fortune 500 Companies, but that’s where my journey began.

I was the middle child of seven. My father picked cotton for a living, and my mother was a maid at a truck-stop motel. It’s fair to say we were poor; it’s truer still to say we lived in poverty. So did a lot of people around Brownsville. We lived about a dozen miles outside of town and didn’t even have indoor plumbing when I was small.

But my parents did what was needed to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. My father, Ivory, is a proud man; he never took a dime of public assistance and often worked two and three jobs to make ends meet. My mother, could stretch a dollar like nobody’s business.

My parents were incredible role models and raised us in the church. For the black community, church was not only a place to worship, but it was also a place where your economic status did not matter. My siblings and I performed with my parents as a traveling gospel group, The Ellison Family, and my dad was always involved in church-related programs and activities. We were taught that when problems or circumstances become too large for us to handle, they were just right for God to solve. Understanding servant leadership has kept me focused on what’s important and headed in the right direction during all kinds of storms in my life.

Eventually, somebody noticed my father teaching at church and was impressed with his charisma and his ability to engage people. They approached him about becoming an insurance agent; that one career decision took our family from poverty to lower middle class.

I learned so many lessons from my parents in those early years that still serve me today. They instilled in us an understanding of the value of an education, and I’ve been committed ever since to lifelong learning. They taught us not to allow our circumstances to limit our vision of the future.

That was a radical idea for black families in the South. We weren’t that far removed from the long, dark shadow of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement was still in its early days. The idea that we ought to dream big and even chase those dreams, despite our start, is something my parents gave us as children, and I’ll be forever grateful that they did.

They taught us the importance of hard work and accountability, that you can’t make excuses, to boldly face life’s challenges, to prepare ourselves for the future we want, and then to go out and achieve it.

Armed with faith and the lessons our parents taught us, I enrolled in the University of Memphis. It took me five and a half years to finish because I couldn’t always attend classes full-time. Working to pay for college made me appreciate the education I was getting. Through my toughest days as a student, I was motivated by the fact that I wanted to make my parents proud and not disappoint them.

Still, earning that degree didn’t put me on some fast track to the corporate C-suite. When I was working my way through school, I spent time as a janitor, truck driver, warehouse operator and a convenience store clerk working the graveyard shift. It was a step up in the world when I landed a job as a part-time security guard at Target, making $4.35 an hour. That was the real start of my career in retail, and it’s been a long and winding road from there to here.

I had a lot of ambition back in those days. I knew I was working toward something bigger and better. My wife, Sharyn, jokes that she noticed me on campus in college because I was the only undergrad walking around with a briefcase instead of a backpack. I was projecting who I wanted to be and not focused on my current state. When I met Sharyn on campus in 1986, she was the first person outside my family who encouraged me to pursue my outrageous career dreams with relentless passion.

I’d gotten my foot in the door at Target, and I had an opportunity to soak up knowledge. That’s been a hallmark of my career, knowing that I’m working toward something bigger while being present in every role to learn about different aspects of the industry. Each role was preparing me for the leadership positions I’d have later in life.

After 15 years moving up the ranks at Target, I had an opportunity in 2002 to jump to an exciting position at Home Depot. There I found a mentor who not only helped me grow professionally but also encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree in business administration, a natural fit for my interest in continual learning.

To accelerate my career growth, I decided to take every tough assignment everyone else viewed as too risky. My view was simple: “high risk” created “high reward,” and this philosophy paid off. A few years later, I became Home Depot’s Executive Vice President of U.S. stores, another incredible opportunity to lead and learn.

I held that job for six years before I was recruited to become CEO and ultimately Chairman of the Board of JCPenney. JCPenney was one of those stores we kids could only shop in for special occasions. And here I was— still the same boy who grew up poor in Haywood County—leading the turnaround of one of America’s most recognized brands, meeting with the President of the United States to discuss trade issues, and responsible for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people at various stages in their careers, careers that looked a lot like mine. It was surreal, and it was a blessing.

But God had more in store for me. And in 2018, I was given the incredible opportunity to join Lowe’s as its CEO and ultimately Chairman of the Board of what is now the 31st largest company in America.

Lowe’s is a great company. With more than 300,000 associates, we’re working to make homes better for all. And when you’re looking for a sense of purpose in your work, what could be more meaningful than that?

Not only have we grown the company, particularly since the start of the pandemic, but we’ve had the incredible opportunity to lift communities we serve during times of crisis following natural disasters and in other times of need. In fact, just last year I returned to Brownsville with some grant dollars and an army of Lowe’s volunteers to help fund and build the city’s new town hall. This was one of 100 community impact projects we took across the country in 2021 to celebrate Lowe’s centennial, and it was a remarkable way to bring my journey full circle. It was a reminder that no matter where life takes us, what matters most is home. Brownsville has changed so much since I was a young boy; it’s become a vibrant community with exciting opportunities for economic growth and prosperity. And I was beyond proud that Lowe’s could be a part of the revitalization taking place downtown.

I may live and work in Charlotte, North Carolina, but home will always be Haywood County, Tennessee. The most important thing I can say about my life and my journey is that I’m not special. I’m a product of the family and community that raised me. I’m living proof that through education, hard work and a sense of purpose, we can all rise to the level of our dreams, regardless of where we start. Brownsville taught me that, and I’m proud to share that message with others here at home.