Ann-Marie Campbell’s American Dream


She joined The Home Depot in 1985 as a cashier. Today, she leads a division for the Fortune 500 company.

When you’ve risen high enough in the corporate hierarchy to be presented with your own bobblehead doll, it can be hard to stay grounded.

But that hasn’t been an issue for Ann-Marie Campbell (MBA ’05, B.A. ’07), president of Home Depot’s Southern Division. One reason is the collection of orange aprons she has hanging just a few feet from her bobblehead. Four times a year, each day quarterly earnings are announced, every employee at Home Depot headquarters — from the mailroom assistants to the CEO — don the same orange aprons their store clerks wear. It’s a show of solidarity, a reminder that they’re all in it together.

Not that Campbell needs an apron to stay humble. She hasn’t forgotten that she once wore the apron as a store employee herself, a cashier at store No. 216 in North Miami Beach, Fla. And while her ascent to executive status happened as a result of hard work and dedication, she gives plenty of credit to colleagues and mentors — within Home Depot and at Georgia State — who helped her turn that hard work into success.

“I was able to move up in the company because people reached out and helped me,” she says. “It went from a job to a career because I had people who believed in me.”

 
 

BIG THINGS IN STORE

Ann-Marie1 Of course, it only became a job in the first place by chance. Campbell began attending Florida International University shortly after her family moved from their native Jamaica to the United States, and though she had a job tutoring calculus and physics, she decided she needed to take a second job to “make some real money,” she says. She started at KFC, then moved to J. Byron’s department store before making the move to Home Depot.

At that point, she admits with a smile, she didn’t have a greater plan.

“I didn’t know what it was, didn’t even know it was a home-improvement store,” she remembers. “But I was making $3.35 an hour at J. Byron’s, and they said they would pay me $4.15, and when you’re a young per- son, you automatically make that move.”

Retail was an easy fit for Campbell: During summers and holiday breaks from boarding school, she’d worked at Phidd’s Furniture and Appliances, her grandmother’s store in Portmore, Jamaica. But it was at Home Depot where Campbell learned two things. First, she preferred retail to medicine, her previous field of study at Florida International. Second, Home Depot was the kind of place she could see herself at for the long term.

I loved the culture of the company, which was a very personal family atmosphere — our founders treasured that — and a company that was listening to employees’ opinions,” she says. “I was moving, I was growing, I was being challenged, I was given opportunities, and it just kind of worked out for me. That’s how I decided early on that it could go from a job to a career. And when you make that decision in your mind, you operate a little differently. You realize the sky is the limit, and what else you could do if you could accomplish that next step.”

In addition to what she was learning on the job, Campbell got a boost from Georgia State, first completing the Executive MBA (EMBA) program at Georgia State’s Robin- son College of Business, then earning the bachelor’s degree in philosophy she was working toward at Florida International. The most important aspect of the EMBA, she says, was having professors and class- mates who, like her, were out in the world of business even as they were getting additional education.

“I had a strong business lineage, so I was really able to understand and associate the business practices I was learning in class with my environment,” she says. “School gives you the theoretical knowledge, but the practical knowledge is so important. So when you can apply that in real time and real life, it just makes sense.”

 
 

HOW TO BUILD A CAREER

Campbell says she learned fairly early that she couldn’t accomplish that next step alone. She needed a mentor and a champion. And she found her most important one more or less by accident.
“Lynn Martin was a vice president years ago,” she recalls. “It was a chance meeting in a store. He asked a question, and I was in the group accompanying him on the ‘store walk,’ and I answered the question. He took a particular interest in finding out who I was and he felt I added some value. I probably didn’t think I did at the time, but he did!”

Thus “speak up” became one of the most valuable lessons she learned in her career. Another was “don’t be self-limiting.” She remembers a mentor questioning her decision to turn down several advancement opportunities because she didn’t think she was ready, “but if other people didn’t think I was ready, they wouldn’t have asked. ‘Ready’ should not be based on what you think you’re ready for, it should be based on what other people think.”

Ann-Marie2

 
 

HUMBLE WISDOM FROM THE TOP

Today, Campbell oversees more than 100,000 employees at 690 Home Depot stores. And now that she’s made it to the corner office, she’s working to help give other people the same chance to get there that she got. That includes both Home Depot employees and the two sons she and her husband, Christopher, are raising. The older of the two is finishing up his third year in college — and, she freely admits, is already getting an earful of ad- vice as he begins following in his mother’s footsteps.

“He initially thought he wanted to do his B.A. in finance, and he did an unpaid internship at the Chamber of Commerce,” Campbell says. “At first he said to me, ‘Why would I spend two months doing an unpaid internship?’ I said, ‘Let’s not argue about the dollars — let’s get the experience. You wouldn’t be doing anything anyway!’ So he did his first internship and he realized that he really didn’t like finance, he preferred interacting with people. When you know that quickly, in your first year, you don’t lose time. It was unpaid, but he had some significant learning moments.”

Formulating a career plan early, she says, is incredibly valuable for today’s students, valuable enough that they should start doing it long before they graduate.

“When you think about entering college and you’re a freshman or sophomore,” she says, “your mindset is, ‘Hey, I’ve just got to pass these classes.’ You don’t truly focus on what you’re going to do four years from now when you actually graduate. Hence, in many cases, you lose a couple years in the planning process, which I think is very critical in planting the seeds for your future success.

“What I tell young people today is when they start their first day of college, they should have an idea of what success will look like for them in four years. One part of it may be graduating, but graduating in what? And doing what? And how then do you set up your next four years to accomplish that task?”

For Georgia State students, Campbell is providing more than advice. In addition to serving on the Robinson College’s Board of Advisors, she recently endowed a need- based scholarship for five business students each year.

“To be honest, I never expected to be in this position, or this financial situation, at my age,” she says. “When I was these students’ age, I was trying to figure out how to get two dollars to put gas in my car. But I think it’s important, when you’re able to achieve beyond what your expectations were, that you figure out how to give back. I keep their profiles on my desk because I want to look at them two years, three years, five years or 10 years from now and see where they sit. Providing the dollars is the easier work for those of us who can do it. The hard work is taking advantage of that opportunity and maximizing it.”

While many people would look at Campbell’s title or her corner office — or even her bobblehead doll — and judge her successful, she says being able to give a leg up to students and employees is her true measure of success.

“It’s only when you develop others that you permanently succeed,” she says. “When I do have opportunities to speak to students, or even to my kids, that’s the type of value that I instill in them. It’s not just about you. The world is a community. Everyone has their part, so let’s go out and make sure everyone is able to do it successfully.”

Doug Gillett is a writer in the Georgia State Foundation’s Office of Donor Relations.