How Home Depot’s Ann-Marie Campbell Rose From Cashier to the C-Suite

The home-improvement retailer's plans to get more bucks out of the same 2,276 stores.
September 13, 2016, 10:30 AM UTC
Ann-Marie Campbell
Executive Vice President of U.S. stores for The Home Depot Ann-Marie Campbell shows off her apron and patch depicting 31 years at the company at an Atlanta area store.
Photograph by Melissa Golden for Fortune Magazine

How Home Depot’s Ann-Marie Campbell Rose From Cashier to the C-Suite

The home-improvement retailer’s plans to get more bucks out of the same 2,276 stores.

It’s 8 a.m. at the Home Depot (HD) store No. 121, on Cumberland Parkway in Atlanta, and Ann-Marie Campbell, the new head of U.S. stores, is there to move some product. The employees who motor by all seem to know her. “How are you?” she calls cheerily, as many come over to chat. Kids, work, travels, life. “Whoa—you got a new badge!” she says. “Good work!”

One young woman stops Campbell to gush. The woman had joined Home Depot after 14 years of working in fast-food store management. She has four kids and a personality that could power the lighting section. “I need to ask you about work/life balance,” she says, breathlessly sharing her path through the store—she started part-time in “garden” and then worked in several other departments—while pointing to her badges. She lowers her voice. “I mean, really, how do I get to be you?”

Later on, Campbell jumps to greet a customer who had been silently staring at an array of faucets and other sink-related material, looking mildly defeated. “Finding everything you need?” she asks. Her standard mode of engagement is rapid-fire conversation—without, somehow, ever losing a smile. She appears ready to coach him through the installation if need be. You see, Ann-Marie Campbell believes you can do anything. Even you, nervous plumber. Even you, eager badge-toting shelf stocker. Actually, especially you.

This latter group—the 300 associates who work in the Cumberland Parkway store—are the true targets of her visit. They are Home Depot’s frontline fighting force, the soul of the company’s effort to maintain its dominance in the home-improvement realm. Sure, the entire brick-and-mortar retail sector may be aching to figure out how to be indispensable to customers both online and in aisle seven. But to Campbell, “the 300” on Cumberland—and the happy warriors at the store 14 miles away on Piedmont Road Northeast and those in the one nearby in Buckhead and, heck, all the other store associates in Home Depot’s 2,276 locations—­offer the obvious answer. These are the 400,000 or so surrogates, she says, who will make the case to customers that Home Depot can deliver, whatever the platform.

That core belief—and her ability to convince many others of it too—is how Campbell ascended Home Depot’s corporate ladder. As executive vice president of stores, she is responsible for the lion’s share of the company’s $88.5 billion business. The position has become a stepping-stone: An earlier occupant of the job, Marvin Ellison, became the CEO of J.C. Penney (JCP) in 2015. But Home Depot loves a humble beginning, and Campbell’s does not disappoint. Now 51, she began as a part-time cashier some 31 years ago in Miami store No. 216, a new Jamaican immigrant looking to make her way. Back then she had an accent so pronounced that Bernie Marcus, Home Depot’s cofounder, had trouble understanding her. “He still jokes that he had no idea what I was saying for the first five years I was here,” she says. “But the customers and associates liked me, so that was all he needed to know.”

Campbell was tapped as part of a small but strategic management shake-up last January, barely one month after the company published a sales target of $101 billion within the next three years—an increase from the current level of nearly 15%. The figure, which is in line with the sales growth the company has managed in recent years, doesn’t sound crazy ambitious at first. But analysts expect that, despite a strong housing market of late, economic challenges could swat retail sales across the board in the not-so-distant future. Several big name-brand chains (Sears, Macy’s, Kohl’s, among them) have been shuttering dozens of stores.

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Home Depot hasn’t announced any store closings, but it also has no plans to build new ones. Execs at the company still seem to carry the scars of the 2008 downturn, which has made them wary of expanding in uncertain times. That deep recession, of course, was led by a collapse in the housing sector—and “it hit us hard,” says Carol Tomé, Home Depot’s chief financial officer and close friend and mentor to Campbell. “We had nearly $13 billion in sales wiped out.” Home Depot closed stores and exited entire businesses, such as its “expo” design stores. “I vowed to myself never to support a future store opening that would have to be closed,” says Tomé.

So Campbell’s mission is to wring substantially more sales out of the stores she’s got—and to make sure that Home Depot’s human sales associates and its e-tail platform work together to reinforce the customers’ experience that they’re being well-served. Stores, websites, and distribution centers need to be “fused” to get products to consumers in any way that they like. “A big part of what I’m doing is preparing for that world,” says Campbell. In truth, it’s already here: While online sales accounted for just 5.6% of the total in Home Depot’s most recent second quarter, that’s a 19% increase over the same quarter the previous year. And believe it or not, Home Depot’s $4.7 billion in annual online sales already make it the fourth-largest e-commerce company in the U.S.—trailing only Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), and Walmart (WMT)—according to eMarketer.

“For the leadership of the big boxes, the next few years will be about making the omni-channel presence seamless,” says Jaime Katz, a Morningstar analyst, so that consumers will be agnostic about whether they shop in the store, online for in-store pickup, or online for home delivery.

Home Depot’s investment in its distribution chain has given it a modest lead over the competition. “They made a lot of smart investments that have served them well,” says Tom Wrobleski, executive vice president of the consulting firm Chain­alytics, who worked on Home Depot’s distribution strategy some 12 years ago. The challenge now is figuring out how to nail that “last mile” distribution, by delivering products—by whatever means and platform—to increasingly tech-savvy customers. Home Depot, for its part, has invested in mobile tools to drive both sales and foot traffic. But Campbell’s strength, says Wrobleski, is her willingness to experiment. “Ann-Marie really knows how to drive change,” he says. “She’s naturally iterative and understands how to fail fast and move on.”

Ann-Marie Campbell is No. 20 on our Most Powerful Women list. See the full list here.

To make sure that associates aren’t summarily called away for stocking duties and other store-related tasks when they should be taking care of customers, for instance, Campbell created a dedicated, 40,000-employee-strong brigade—the merchandising execution team—to tend to store appearance and the bulk of stocking. That leaves the remaining roughly 90% of associates to serve and create rapport with customers, including the professional contractors who now account for some 40% of Home Depot’s business.

Campbell, who is an executive vice president and one of three women on Home Depot’s seven-person executive committee (she reports directly to CEO Craig Menear), is the company’s great implementer of new processes and ideas. It’s a skill she honed in her previous job as president of Home Depot’s southern division, a fleet of nearly 700 stores. The changes typically evolve like a call-and-response, often taking months or years to complete. “Things like supply-chain management, the way we do shipping and receiving, changing the stores to be mini–distribution centers, all start as pilot programs,” she says, developed by cross-functional teams and fine-tuned in the field. While she was division president, her stores were a key testing ground.

She offers one small example that has big implications for the future of the company: fixed schedules for associates. It’s an unusual scheme in retail, but one that may help the company build out its third shift, which typically starts at 9 p.m. In addition to managing freight and stocking shelves, the night squad is often responsible for prepping Internet sales-for-pick-up orders, which today account for 42% of all orders online.

The advantage of fixed schedules is straightforward enough: Workers can plan their lives around them. The disadvantage is when a worker can’t get out of a shift that’s destroying her life—which is what happened to one associate, a single mom, who shared her plight with Campbell during a store visit last year. “People know my story—how I started like they did and that I struggled with things, like being a working mom,” says Campbell. “They ask me things they wouldn’t ask anyone else.” (Campbell reassured the woman that she would get a shift that worked for her.)

Employee surveys, town halls, and regular manager meetings all help Campbell make sure she’s in tune with how “her workers” are doing, but it’s walking the floor that gives her the most insight.

There, in person, she can see beyond the name tags on associates’ orange aprons—she reads the signs of life in the “flair” they wear: clips with pictures of kids, or stars and hearts drawn in Sharpie brights. She reads their badges—recognitions for sales and service achievements, for promotions, for being voted “job title” of the month, for the number of years an associate has worked at the company. The badges have become not only a way for employees to telegraph their résumés and ambitions, but also (to seasoned veterans, at least) symbols in a semiotics of leadership potential. And Ann-Marie Campbell speaks fluent badge.

Ann-Marie Campbell
Campbell, center, poses with store associates in Atlanta.Photograph by Melissa Golden for Fortune Magazine
Photograph by Melissa Golden for Fortune Magazine

“Honestly, being a store manager was the best job I ever had,” she tells one employee during a smallish town hall for associates in Atlanta in August. The worker tells Campbell that his goal is to become a manager himself by age 30. After asking the associate some questions about his life—he worked as a truck driver until his wife threatened to divorce him for his time on the road—she ticks through a list of must-dos if he is to climb the company ladder: “Tell your manager you want to spend some time getting to know other departments,” she says. “Ask people who have the job you want how they got it.” Campbell spends several more minutes with the young man, advising him to be persistent, to stay curious, and to keep in touch with the people he meets. “Drop them emails asking what you should do to learn,” she continues. “You have to ask people for help. I wasn’t good at that.”

Campbell was born in Jamaica to a well-to-do couple, a happy family of four kids, derailed by her father’s early death when she was just one and a half years old. “I was raised largely by my grandmother,” a fiercely independent woman who had 10 children of her own, was divorced in her forties, and started a home-goods retail business that she grew into a multi­million-dollar enterprise. “She showed me that I must work hard and never give up,” says Campbell.

When a customer demanded to “speak to a guy,” Campbell would “pick the guy who knew the least to come help,” she says. He’d always have to kick the question back to me.”

She attended an exacting boarding school and entered adulthood disciplined and focused. “As an immigrant, it’s a very good orientation to have,” she says. She moved to Miami to continue her education, paying for expenses with part-time work at Home Depot. It’s a big part of her cashier-to-C-suite narrative that she started in the stores as an hourly up-and-comer 31 years ago (she has the badge to prove it). She worked hard and rose fast. But her swift flight up the company’s org chart nearly went into a stall in 1996.

“Let me tell you a personal story,” Campbell says to another young associate at the town hall who wants to know if she had ever thought of leaving the company. “I had just come back from maternity leave with my second son,” the veteran begins. Her reentry gift was a promotion to district manager, with 13 stores under her leadership. It was Miami, a district going through massive economic upheaval. “I was completely overwhelmed.”

When her assistant overheard her talking about her plans to resign, she quickly called Campbell’s boss, a charismatic guy named Lynn Martineau, a Home Depot early hire who left the company in 2002. Campbell, recalls Martineau, “was such an unusual person from the beginning—incredibly smart. She didn’t sugarcoat anything.” At the time, he says, the company was still young, still growing fast. “There was no blueprint for a lot of what we were doing,” he adds. The company was simply looking for people with good instincts. “She was perfect in that environment. When you recognize talent, you want to put it where it can grow.”

Martineau flew in and had a surprise intervention for Campbell in the parking lot. “I had bad numbers, bad shrinks [returns], and every Monday on the company conference call, I was being pounded on everything,” she says. “And I had two kids under 4. But Lynn told me I was promoted for a reason and that he would help. But I had to ask for what I needed.”

Campbell looks the young town hall questioner in the eye: “And that’s what I’m telling you to do.”

The advice can and should work for anyone. But Campbell believes that encouraging employees to ask for help is also a tool for inclusion. Home Depot is committed to building a workforce that looks like the communities it serves, Campbell says—a diversity that, as a black woman and an immigrant, Campbell herself reflects.

When one associate fearlessly asks Campbell if her thick Jamaican accent held her back when she arrived in America, she lets out a guffaw. “You know, I started in Miami, which was a pretty diverse place, so being an immigrant wasn’t the problem,” she tells the young man, an immigrant himself. “I was really the only woman on the sales floor back then, and when customers would come in with an issue, they’d demand to speak to, you know, a guy.” Her management tactic was simple but effective. “I’d pick the guy who knew the least to come help,” she says. “The man would always have to kick the question back to me.”

And strangely enough, after three-plus decades, her mission at the company hasn’t much changed: It’s to have every store associate feel knowledgeable, important, and respected—because when that happens, the customers they’re taking care of are likely to feel the same way.

After the town hall in Atlanta is over, Campbell reflects for a moment on the young man who wanted to be a store manager by age 30. “You know, I’ve been at Home Depot longer than he’s been alive,” she says thoughtfully. “But what’s going to keep him around for 31 years?” She pauses to let the question sink in, and then answers it herself: “That’s my big job now.”

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Ann-Marie Campbell Believes in You.”