A native of Jamaica, Ann-Marie Campbell has worked her way up from Home Depot cashier to president of the giant's southern division. • She started in Miami 24 years ago earning a little more than $4 an hour; now she overseas 100,000 workers at 640 stores in 15 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. • Her recent promotion comes as the nation's second-biggest retailer and biggest home-improvement chain has regained its reputation for customer service in independent ratings after cost-cutting CEO Bob Nardelli was ousted in 2006. St. Petersburg Times staff writer Mark Albright chatted with Campbell, 44, during a local store visit Thursday.
Ever since the housing collapse, Home Depot sales have been in the dumps, down 8 percent in 2008, 17 percent in the quarter ended Feb. 3. Have you seen any sign of a change in the Tampa Bay area or Florida?
Florida went into the downturn first. We're seeing some stabilizing, but nothing strong enough to call it the bottom. People are looking to stretch their dollar. Sales are improved in some areas like mowers, because some people are mowing their own yards. The garden center is doing fine, because we responded to demand for drought-resistant plants and plants from seed. It's too early to see a sales impact from the economic stimulus package, but we're ready to capture it because we listened to the customer.
How has Home Depot changed since the recession?
This company was built in the 1982 recession, so we're back to our very core: helping people save money through do-it-yourself projects. We're about value. We lowered prices on 1,000 items. We cut prices on store-brand paint 19 percent and our least expensive patio set to $199. We cut carpet installation for a house by 60 bucks to $139. We just eliminated all appliance home delivery fees without rebates or coupons. For Earth Day weekend we have buy-one-get-one-free herb and garden seed packages. Because of water restrictions here in the bay area, we stepped up our free clinics in drought-resistant landscaping and drip irrigation. And we're selling lots of rain barrels. Unemployment may be high, but the employed will find deals. At my home in Atlanta, I faced a $5,000 bid to trim the trees. Last week it dropped to $2,500.
How did you get into retail?
I grew up in it. My family owned a furniture/appliance store near Kingston, Jamaica. I worked there all summer but lived in a very structured environment the rest of the year at an all-girl Catholic boarding school. When my mother went back to Miami after going to nursing school, I got a job at JByron for $3.75 an hour. I applied at Home Depot while shopping there. I got a 40-cent-an-hour raise and started the next day. I moved on to the paint department, my all-time personal favorite, because they made every cashier adopt a department to learn about the rest of the store. When I managed a plumbing department, my mentor held my hand when he answered customer's technical questions so I couldn't leave. I don't think of this as work. I just like interacting with people.
You got your MBA while at Home Depot but majored in philosophy for your bachelor's degree. Why?
I just love to read, learn and think through complex things. It helped me answer a lot of life's questions. I finish two books a week, mostly nonfiction. Most recently it was Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, Lee Gruenfeld's The Expert and Curtis Sittenfeld's The American Wife. Oh, and FDR.
Home Depot has made a profit center and art form of being prepared for hurricane season. Didn't you manage a store in south Miami after it was flattened by Hurricane Andrew?
Yes, it really made me understand how much a Home Depot becomes a vital community hub, a lifeline in times of need. After the storm, we took care of any employee's problem, so they didn't have to worry about their home, money or loans, or family issues — anything that could keep them away from work. We set up shop in the parking lot with bricks, building materials and mobile cash registers. There were many nights I didn't go home. When you see that sort of devastation and look in the faces of customers whose dire needs you can fulfill, you just have to be there for them.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.