This is the first story in a six-part series exploring the unique, and sometimes unusual, leadership journeys of Lowe’s executives.
In a light blue button-down shirt and dark jeans, he might be one of the most unassuming CEO’s in the country. “I’m someone who can fit in, and be comfortable, in almost any setting,” said Lowe’s Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Niblock, sitting in his office overlooking the company’s main campus in Mooresville, North Carolina, just north of Charlotte. “It’s an important skill for the role I play every day.”
And the role he plays every day is that of leader: the leader of a FORTUNE® 50 company, the leader of one of the world’s largest retailers with more than 285,000 employees and the leader of a movement – a transformation, as he puts it – to change Lowe’s from a company with a purpose, to a company driven by purpose. Changing a 70-year-old company with the success that Lowe’s has enjoyed is no small task, but it’s precisely the kind of challenge Niblock has prepared himself for his entire life.
Humble roots helped to shape his personal values, and outlook on life. “I grew up in a conservative, supportive environment,” said Niblock, “but we were definitely on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. If it weren’t for families like ours, there wouldn’t have been an upper class to live in the Hamptons.”
Hard work, determination, a desire for continuous improvement and a “clear understanding of the word ‘budget,’ ” were values he picked up at an early age, and helped to form his leadership foundation.
“It started with my upbringing, and understanding the value of being surrounded by supportive people, and the value of a dollar,” he said. “But it was in college that I learned my strong work ethic would open doors, and give me opportunities that I wouldn’t get otherwise.”
Niblock was the first in his family to go to college, leaving his rural hometown for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he majored in accounting. But his reason for wanting to go to college had everything to do with the town, and the family business, he left behind.
“I was 13 when my dad retired from government service after 35 years, and we moved back to his hometown in North Carolina where he began operating a small country store,” Niblock remembered. “When I wasn’t in school, I was at the store, pumping gas, stocking shelves, waiting on customers. And it used to frustrate me because the hours were long, the work was hard, and the money just wasn’t there.”
Niblock started to see a different future for himself. “College was my ticket out of that store,” he said. “So it’s ironic that I eventually ended up right back in retail.”
College was my ticket out of that store. So it’s ironic that I eventually ended up right back in retail.—Robert Niblock
But that irony may have been destiny in disguise because of the reason his father operated that store to begin with. “I couldn’t understand why we were working so hard, for so long, to make so little money,” he recalled. “So one day I asked my dad about it, and he told me it was because the community relied on that store. Looking back on it now, I realize he was leading a very purposeful life.”
Over time, doing something purposeful would eventually become one of Niblock’s guiding principles, leading him to Lowe’s after graduating from UNC-Charlotte and a nine-year career in public accounting at Ernst & Young. “I joined Lowe’s as director of tax,” he said, “and quickly discovered how little I knew about the various tax issues a major retailer faces in all the states and jurisdictions where Lowe’s does business. I had a lot to learn, and homework was the name of the game those first few years.”
But why would an accountant at a Big Four firm choose to join a home improvement company? “DIY is in my DNA,” he answered, “but my story has always been aligned with purpose and values, and I believe we should all work in places where those things exist and are celebrated. What attracted me to Lowe’s was its reputation and customer-driven culture, the way people there were united by a shared purpose that went beyond making money. It reminded me of the lesson I learned from my father, and the reason he worked so hard to keep that little country store up and running. The community needed that store, and he knew it.”
From his first position at Lowe’s, Niblock worked his way up to treasurer, senior vice president of finance, and chief financial officer and president, before being named chairman and CEO. “I’m certain that director of tax to CEO is not your typical career progression,” he said about his rise to the corner office. “It certainly was not my plan when I graduated from college, or even in my consideration set when I left Ernst & Young to join Lowe’s. And I think if I had been aiming for CEO all along, I’d probably still be filing tax returns because I wouldn’t have given adequate time and attention to the job I was hired to do.”
I think if I had been aiming for CEO all along, I’d probably still be filing tax returns—Robert Niblock
A strong work ethic and ability to focus on the task at hand are hallmarks of his career, and two of the values he looks for in the people who work with him. “My father believed hard work was the answer to everything, and as a result, I’ve always focused on giving my best, doing what was asked of me,” Niblock said.
Working hard and doing what was asked put him in a position to make his biggest mark on Lowe’s: the transformation of the company from being purpose-rich to being purpose-driven.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to work for a company like Lowe’s because every day I get to do something that matters to people,” he said. “Our purpose is to help people love where they live. It’s the idea that our company can do well by first doing good, and that motivates us to work and build our careers at Lowe’s.”
It takes a different mindset, and a different skill set, to work for a purpose-driven company in a rapidly changing world. And it takes a different kind of leader. “Not bosses,” he said, “but leaders. Leaders who want to serve others, develop and engage talent, embrace diversity of thought, value the voice and expression of their people, render results and evolve as the world around them evolves. That’s how you turn leadership into something bigger than just being the boss.”
And it’s leaders who are helping to transform Lowe’s today, leaders from across the company with diverse backgrounds and views who are attracting and developing talent in pursuit of a single purpose: to help people love where they live. “In a fast-paced and competitive world, talented people are what makes the difference,” he said, “and talented people want leaders who can guide them through change, who are nimble and stay ahead of the curve, who understand the value of collaboration and teamwork, and can harness the energy and power of creativity. At Lowe’s, we can’t accomplish our goals without great people delivering great service, and that takes great leadership.”
Leadership that starts at the very top.