Marvin Ellison didn?t start out in a cushy executive training program after his parents paid to send him to an elite college.
No, Ellison has one of those other storybook backgrounds, the kind that inspire us to plant the American flag in our front yards on federal holidays.
He?s the real American dream, and he?s about to step into a job leading a department store brand that?s the apple pie of its industry. At this point in its 113-year history, if J.C. Penney is going to survive and thrive as a store that serves middle-income America, it?s good that the team leader has lived the life.
Ellison, 50, was the fourth of seven children raised in a small town northeast of Memphis that recently installed its third stoplight.
He?s a middle child who says he?s ?a born peacekeeper.?
?My father worked very hard, and my mother was very patient with us. She also worked most of my young life,? he said.
Last October, when Ellison was named president and CEO-designee of Penney, based outside Dallas in Plano, a reporter at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tenn., interviewed his father, Ivory Ellison.
The elder Ellison posed at his front door in Brownsville, Tenn., with a framed family photo. ?We?re very proud of him. His mother is in heaven shining right now,? he said about his wife Ella, who died two years ago.
What Marvin?s parents preached can fit into a paragraph: Have faith. Be a good citizen. Remember you are no better than anyone and no one is better than you. Don?t look down on people. Education is the path out of poverty.
?And those things were taught to us with a high degree of love,? Ellison said.
It took Ellison 5 1/2 years to get his business degree from the University of Memphis because he worked his way through school on the graveyard shift at a convenience store, as a janitor at a women?s department store and driving a plumbing supplies truck with no air conditioning in the summers. He was a certified equipment operator in a warehouse, and then, Ellison said, ?I found my spot? working at a Target store.
?I was trying to pay for room and board and tuition, and my co-workers were trying to pay the light bill,? Ellison said. ?And I was one of those store associates who was never asked for my opinion.?
His college work experience influenced his entire approach once he entered the corporate scene, he said. ?I can identify. There?s nothing more instructive than asking store employees for their opinions. I have no problem doing it.?
Ellison takes over from CEO Mike Ullman on Aug. 1 when Ullman becomes executive chairman of the board. He came to Penney from Home Depot, where he was executive vice president over its 2,000 U.S. stores.
Ullman helped choose Ellison and said the two have shared the responsibility of running the company since Nov. 1. They haven?t had ?a bad day yet,? Ullman said in June at a Wall Street conference.
He saw in Ellison someone who had already worked through a turnaround at Home Depot. He came out the other side with investors, employees and customers all winning, Ullman said.
Ellison, who spent 12 years at Home Depot, arrived there in 2002 with a lot of credibility after 15 years with Target, said Steven Skinner, senior vice president Cognizant Technology Solutions. ?Target at the time was Tarjay, and it was an extremely well-run company. Then, the way Marvin carried himself gave him more credibility.
?You?re not going to be hearing about any outbursts from Marvin,? Skinner said. ?People like working for him. He operates under a tent; he?s inclusive. That doesn?t mean he won?t make a decision. He will, and then he will own it.?
Ellison isn?t afraid to share credit, ?not like many leaders today who like to hog it,? said Skinner, who ran merchandise operations for Home Depot and was president of Home Depot Direct when Ellison was running U.S. stores.
LEARNING FROM DAD
Ellison credits his parents for putting him on this ?trajectory,? he said, vs. other paths he could have taken out of rural Tennessee.
He talked to his 73-year-old father about the risk of leaving a healthy company like Home Depot for the Penney job. He relayed the conversation at a meeting with 1,000 Penney store managers in Dallas in March.
His father reminded him that one of his jobs had been selling insurance. He never missed a quota and chose the risk and upside potential of 100 percent commission so he could provide for his family.
Ellison?s father explained that he?d travel to neighboring towns, pick a neighborhood, park the car and start knocking on doors. At lunch, he?d eat a sandwich in the car, deal with the rejection and go down another street in the afternoon. Some doors got slammed in his face. Then one door would open, and he knew he could sell it.
?He called it grinding to succeed,? Ellison said. ?My father, who didn?t graduate from high school, said his college-educated colleagues didn?t understand how he was outselling them.?
He would share his grinding story with them, and they responded that his method was beneath them.
Ellison quoted his father: ??When the economy was bad, I was grinding. When the economy was good, I was grinding. I had seven kids and couldn?t take a chance.?
?Then he asked me,? Ellison said. ?Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and grind every day??
After relaying that story, Ellison told Penney managers that he?s not a fancy person. ?I won?t try to be theatrical or provocative with you.
?We can love our customer and keep grinding to be successful,? Ellison said. ?We don?t have to blow up the company.?
Five things to know about Marvin Ellison
1. Marvin on Twitter: Ellison follows competitor Kohl?s and his alma mater, the University of Memphis. He has 5,425 followers. (Come on, Penney people, there are 114,000 of you.)
2. Southern education: Ellison has an MBA from Emory University.
3. Ellison the family man: He and his wife Sharyn have a son, 18, and a daughter, 13. He says only his children hear his ?raised voice.?
4. In his spare time: Ellison plays bass guitar. Every one of his six siblings played an instrument in the family?s band and gospel singing group. They performed around the Midwest when Ellison was a youngster.
5. Small town roots: Growing up in a small town, the Ellisons shopped at the closest J.C. Penney: a 60,000-square-foot store that opened in 1967 in Jackson, Tenn. Ellison said growing up ?in a very modest household with quite a number of siblings,? his mother ?spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make ends meet.?