MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Marvin Ellison may now be among the movers and shakers of the business world, but the CEO of JCPenney started life from extremely humble beginnings right here in the Mid-South.
“Coming out of Memphis State University it was not uncommon for me to work with colleagues from Ivy League universities or who had clerked for the Supreme Court, or had international experience and had worked with companies in different parts of the world, and initially that’s very intimidating. I’m from Brownsville, Tennessee. I’m from Memphis State.”
Ellison grew up not seeing a lot of success around him, but his parents taught him to think beyond his surroundings.
“The one thing they both taught us was the power of education and irrespective of your surroundings, your gender, your ethnicity, color of your skin. That education unlocked all the doors and can lead you out of poverty.”
How he ended up in retail as chairman and chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company started with a simple trip to the employment office in college. He needed a part-time job to boy books.
“I walk in and I said to the clerk, ‘What’s the highest paying, hourly position you have posted on the board?’ And it was a part-time security officer job at Target. And that was how I ended up in retail.”
Ellison kept that $4.35 an hour Target job for two years and graduated with his marketing degree around the same time Target blossomed from a regional retailer into a mega company. They hired him on a store management team and he worked his way up. He was senior vice president of the company’s Loss Prevention Department when he left 15 years later.
“I’ve been very disciplined around setting goals, career goals. I’ve been very disciplined around making sure that the quality of my work is exceptional because, irrespective of what your educational background is, companies tend to recognize sustainable success. If you can generate sustainable success, if your results can exceed the people around you on a consistent basis then you`re going to move forward in an organization.”
Home Depot lured him away as a top executive and eventually promoted him to vice president over all U.S. Home Depot stores. Two years ago, he stepped into the role as chief executive officer when JCPenney tapped him to turn around their stores. He’s one of only four African American CEO’s to lead a Fortune 500 company.
The store in Jackson, Tennessee, about 30 miles from Elliston’s hometown, was his first exposure to JCPenney. His mother would bring the family to shop on special occasions like Easter and Christmas. Never did he dream he would become president and CEO of the entire company.
Now, Ellison draws on those humble beginnings to improve the profits for all JCPenney stores, going after customers like his mother.
“My mother was a master at stretching the dollar,” he said. “I really identify with the customers because that customer is my mother. That customer is my aunt and my uncle. It`s how I grew up and so there’s a real pure and authentic connection between me and JCPenney based just on how I grew up.”
For those wanting to follow in his footsteps, he had a few words of advise.
“I think it’s most important to have a strong foundation in faith. My parents taught us that from an early age.”
He added that education unlocks opportunities.
“If you can do those things with your faith and you can get your education, if you can be really, really focused on trying to be the best and you can have goals that you set, you have no idea the blessings that you can achieve and the things that you can accomplish in your life. I’m a living example. There’s nothing special about me other than I’ve taken those things and I’ve implemented them in my life.”