Categories: Inside Lowe's

A leadership lesson worth learning early

Photography coverage of the Lowe's 2016 National Sales Meeting at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. Charlotte Photographer - PatrickSchneiderPhoto.com

All he wanted was to earn a little gas money.

Brent Kirby had just graduated from high school when he started looking for something better than his traditional summer job at an amusement park.

“I was going to college, and figured I needed to step it up a little,” he said.

Stan Brown, the retail sales manager at the newly remodeled Lowe’s store in Chattanooga, Tennessee, saw potential in Kirby and offered him a part-time sales position making $3.75 an hour. His old amusement park job paid $2.75.

“I figured I must have caught a break and they really needed someone,” Kirby recalled.

The job was just supposed to get him through the summer, something to leave behind when he headed off to school. Dressed in khakis and a tie like the other salesmen, Kirby’s first interaction with a customer didn’t change his outlook on the long-term prospects of the job.

“Guy comes in and says, ‘Where’s your 12-2 Romex?’ and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” Kirby said. “So I grabbed the department manager, and she said, ‘That’s electrical wire,’ and led us over to where we kept it. After the customer left, she pulled me aside and gave me my first real training.”

That was July 8, 1986. He hasn’t worked for any other company since.

Throughout that first summer, the more Kirby learned about the store, the more responsibility he was given. By the time the summer ended, the store’s management team made a deal with him: keep working here, and we’ll be flexible around your school schedule. Kirby agreed to the deal, but made a promise to himself.

“I told myself that by the time I finish school, I want to be out of retail,” he said. “But by the time I actually finished, I was a store manager.”

I told myself that by the time I finish school, I want to be out of retail. By the time I finished, I was a store manager.
—Brett Kirby, Chief Supply Chain officer

Kirby had fallen for retail, and, in particular, with helping people love where they live. Hardware, paint, appliances, lumber and building materials were all things he understood and connected with. His grandfather was a homebuilder, and Kirby had fond memories of helping him on job sites. But the bachelor’s degree he earned in business administration gave him a different perspective on the industry, and with the guidance of two store managers in particular, his part-time job had turned into the start of a career that would be defined by the very same lesson he learned that first summer: more responsibility leads to more opportunity.

First was the charismatic Rick Crocker, who on the day he left Lowe’s made a photocopy of his last bonus check as a store manager, wrote a note on it, folded it into an envelope, and left it in Kirby’s mailbox.

“It said, ‘I see the potential in you, and Lowe’s is the kind of place where you can make a good living.’”

That gave Kirby the assurance that being a store manager was a good way to provide for his young and growing family. But he was also searching for inspiration, something he would find in a second manager, Leonard Turner.

“Leonard showed me how fulfilling it could be to lead a team,” Kirby said. “He would come in every morning, meet with the office team about the previous day’s deposit, then walk the sales floor and meet with everyone he passed – employees and customers. He was great at uniting everybody around the customer, and not caring about excuses because the customer didn’t care about excuses.”

Turner was also the one who told Kirby it was time to move up.

“You can do anything in this company you want to do,” he told him. “Go learn how to run a big box store.”

The store where Kirby had spent his entire Lowe’s career up to that point was 24,000 square feet, and Lowe’s was beginning to experiment with larger format stores. Store 144 in North Chattanooga, Tennessee was one of only two new 65,000-square-foot stores in the entire company, and Kirby was tapped to be an assistant manager there.

“We were learning everything on the fly,” Kirby recalled. “90-hour weeks weren’t uncommon the first couple of years.”

That experience prepared him better than anything else could for his next assignment: store manager. His first stop was a store in Dalton, Georgia. But after 18 months, he was given a new challenge: the newly relocated and completely reimagined Chattanooga store where he started his career. At 110,000 square feet, this was now the flagship store for that market, but it got off to a slow start under a different manager and was badly underperforming. Kirby helped turn it around with hard work and good people. And that’s when he first caught the attention of executives at the regional and corporate level.

While July 4, 1995 was a holiday for most of America, for Kirby and his team, it started out as just another busy day at work. Then his regional vice president, Nick Canter, and the company’s next president and chief operating officer, Larry Stone, made an unannounced visit to see why this store had suddenly become profitable.

“They stayed all day,” Kirby said. “They observed, they rolled up their sleeves and helped us serve customers, and at the end of the day, they invited me to dinner to talk more about what we were doing in that store to make it more productive.”

A few months later, on a fall Sunday afternoon, Kirby got a call at home from Canter.

“He told me to be in his office in Atlanta the next morning by 9 a.m.”

Unsure of why he was being called to the regional office or even what to expect, Kirby went with an open mind but a determination to stay in Chattanooga, where he just finished building a home. Canter had different plans, however, and he needed Kirby’s help.

“He pointed to a map on the wall of the Southeast, and said, ‘We’re going back into Atlanta with a big box, and I want you to run it,’ Kirby recalled. “Now, Nick was a great motivator. He could make you feel like you’d follow him anywhere. But I wasn’t real high on moving my family or leaving the house we just built.”

Sensing some hesitation on Kirby’s part, Canter changed his pitch. “I’m not asking you,” he said. “I’m recruiting you. This is a mission.” And then he gave Kirby the chance to do something he’d always wanted to do: build a team from the ground up. More responsibility, more opportunity.

His handpicked team did the job, and did it well enough that Lowe’s continued to reinvest and build new stores in some of the more urban and densely populated areas it had left behind decades before. Kirby was promoted to district manager in 1999, running all the stores in the Charlotte, North Carolina market for a couple of years, before heading back to Atlanta as a regional vice president. That’s when a unique opportunity at Lowe’s corporate headquarters just north of Charlotte came his way.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to leave Atlanta again,” Kirby said. “I had the job I always wanted. I was doing great. We were in, what is still today, my favorite of all the houses we’ve owned over the years. I told them I wasn’t interested.”

But that answer didn’t fly, so a few days later he was approached again.

“My SVP (Senior Vice President) told me, ‘We believe you’re the right guy to stand up the sales and operations planning group for the company. But this is the last time I will ask you about this job. Do you want to execute programs? Or do you want to create programs? Let me know by Monday.’ That led to a lot of soul-searching, and a really tough talk with my family at a Red Lobster outside of Atlanta. Let’s just say my daughter was not real happy with me.”

But it wouldn’t be long before he was second-guessing the decision, himself. The job at corporate wasn’t running stores, where he’d spent his entire career. It was leading a cross-functional team that had to bring diversity of thought and experience to explore new concepts and launch initiatives for Lowe’s.

On his first day in Mooresville, he was shown to his office. Or more accurately, he was ushered past several offices and taken to a converted storage closet. “We’re out of space,” his new boss told him. “This is like a garage startup. It’ll be exciting!”

But what was most exciting for Kirby was selecting his team, and getting to work. From seasonal planning to installed sales, and completing exterior and kitchen projects right in the customer’s home, Kirby led teams on the cutting edge of what would become almost a $5 billion business for Lowe’s. And once again, more responsibility led to more opportunity.

He returned to store operations as a senior vice president, at first overseeing more than 300 stores in the Upper Midwest; then as SVP of the West, a territory that stretched from Texas to Alaska and Hawaii; and finally as SVP of the North, including the Great Lakes, parts of the Eastern seaboard and all of New England. At some point in his career, Kirby has been responsible for stores in every state except Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana.

“Every job along the way was an enlightening experience,” he said. “There’s been a lot of learning.”

Every job along the way was an enlightening experience.  There’s been a lot of learning.
—Brett Kirby, Chief Supply Chain Officer

But the original lesson learned in that first summer still rang true – every time Kirby accepted more responsibility, he found more opportunity. And that mindset led him to new roles and challenges outside of store operations. As sales and service fulfillment executive, he helped Lowe’s further develop its in-home, contact center, delivery and pro customer capabilities. As omni-channel executive, he added Lowe’s digital properties to that mix. And all of it has led to the position he holds today: chief supply chain officer.

“I’ve seen every angle of how the customer interacts with our brand,” Kirby said. “And I’m happy to serve in whatever way the company thinks I’m best able to serve.”

With digital visits now outpacing store visits, and retailers focusing on same-day delivery, having leaders like Kirby with diverse backgrounds and experience is key for Lowe’s as it navigates the unchartered waters of being a 21st century home improvement company.

“Customers need partners to help them make the dreams they have for their homes come true,” Kirby said. “That’s a responsibility I’m glad we take, and what excites me most about working for Lowe’s are the opportunities in front of us.”

Responsibilities and opportunities that have taken him from part-time to a career spanning three decades, and given him a little more than the gas money he was looking for 30 years ago.