It is truly unfortunate that you were unable to respond to me directly. While I will admit that it may have been naive of me to think that you would, a part of me still hoped that you would, at the very least, send me someone who had the capability of thinking freely and open to the idea that Lowe’s is not as great as it once was. Instead, I was given a parrot in a red vest who seemed content to regurgitate years of failed Lowe’s policy and the delusional line of thinking that has become the very source of the problems we face. While I have no doubt that the panel who filters your mail will never let this or the other letters I have sent ever reach your eyes, it is my hope that this, my final letter, reaches you and provides you with enough insight to see that now, more than ever, is the time for a different type of leader. One that is bold enough to go against the grain, to do what no other company has done, and exert the patience to see our new strategies pay off. If I had to applaud the managers at the store level for one thing, it would be their ability to generate problems where none exist so that they may create “solutions” in an effort to seem like they are doing something worthwhile. I can only imagine the amount of time, energy, money and associates that this has cost the company but, seeing as how there is very little in the way of ramifications for doing so, it is not too difficult to see the correlation between the current state of Lowe’s and the level of ineptitude of our “chosen leaders.” It is therefore my intent in this letter to provide solutions to the real and genuine issues that many in management would prefer we did not solve.
Allow me to first preface this discussion with the fact that I am not a thoroughly educated man. You will find no Masters in Business hung on my wall, nor will you find my name amidst any of the pages written in Warren Buffett’s books. As I have stated before, I am a 27 year old nobody with a penchant for writing. I can say with great certainty that what I DO know is people. I have triumphed with them at their highest and have grieved with them at their lowest. All of what I am about to suggest comes from my own experiences, not just as an associate but as a consumer, as well.
One of the fondest memories I have as a child was getting to go with my father to The Home Depot. Though I was a child, I vividly remember the smell of freshly cut lumber as I rode on top of the orange flat carts. I remember looking up and being struck in awe by the giant, floating Styrofoam chainsaw with a slowly moving chain. On the guide bar in orange spray paint read the word “Lumber” in big box letters. What I did not know until years later was that this was the work of one of the associates, named George, that worked at this store. He was a retired carpenter and he made giant displays like the one above for every department. The Paint Desk had a huge paint brush soaked in orange next to a massive gallon of paint that was in the middle of tipping over and you could see paint slowly oozing out of it. Garden had a colossal lawnmower hanging over the Seasonal Department, and if you walked underneath it, you could look up to find Styrofoam blades lazily spinning. A few years had passed until one day, I came in to find that they had all been taken down and the associate that had worked hard was forced to leave because he was making too much money.
Another instance of this can be found at an old drugstore that went by the name of “Longs.” I can still remember walking into that store near Christmastime, racing to the middle racetrack to see what new game they had on the demo kiosk. What made this particular Longs special was one particular associate, whom we will call James. He was an older man, well into his sixties, who had a passion for model trains. James loved model trains so much so that he got permission from his manager to build an entire track around the inner perimeter of the store, complete with model stores and cars and people. If you behaved exceptionally well, James would hand you the controller which would allow you to puff little wisps of smoke out of the smokestack and honk the train horn. Until, one day, Longs was bought out by CVS. The train set was gone, as was Jim, and what replaced it was cold LED lights that were reminisce of a sad doctor’s office, employees that aren’t paid enough for quality customer service, and an inferior product.
What I believe makes a small business vastly superior to a big business is not just their size, but their emphasis. Walk into any BMC, barbershop, or that small restaurant on the corner and you will immediately sense the difference between them and a chain store. Small businesses, like big businesses, know that the only way to keep their lights on is money, but they go about getting it in a radically different way. What separates them is customer service. You go to the little coffee shop on the corner because it is the best damn cup of coffee you can get and you love the way that the barista tells you stories of yesteryear. You go to the mom-and-pop hardware store because they always treat you like you’re coming over for Christmas dinner. What the store lacks in superior funding they more than make up for in out-of-this-world customer care.
I believe it is in the transition from small business to big that the emphasis on customer care is lost. No longer do we demand that our associates be of the highest caliber, true masters in their field, when it becomes cheaper to hire those of little value. Stores that were once founts of knowledge and decades of home improvement experience have become barren wastelands of unmotivated, untalented, and perhaps worst of all, uninspired wastes of space. This can only occur when a company starts seeing how much their associates are costing them instead of the value that their associates bring. The James’ and Georges of the past have been forced out because they are worth more than the company is willing to give them, so they push them out in the hopes that they can hire someone far less qualified and pay them just enough to keep them from wanting to be worth more.
The pitiful excuse for an HR you sent me told me of a time where he gave his team 25 dollar gift cards for their hard work, and of course, there was a teammate who felt like they had earned more. They refused the gift card, and the HR told me that he was actually doing the teammate a favor, because if you multiply the amount of money he spent on gift cards by the number of teammates, it would have cost him more than he was willing to spend on his team if he had increased the amount given. The issue I have isn’t that he didn’t give enough, it was that he was already looking at rewarding his team in terms of how much it was going to cost him, not how much he was going to gain by acknowledging their value. It is this mindset that is slowly, but surely, killing our worker base. The terrible truth is that they know this, and they are content with the idea that we will have mindless monkeys meandering the aisles. They do not want to pay us for our value; they want to pay us for our lack of it.
I remember you sent out an e-mail detailing some new program that would enable us to “close the gap” between us and the orange aprons down the street. I like to imagine it like this: Home Depot is an ice cream store that only serves vanilla. Not strawberry or chocolate, just plain old vanilla. It works as a safe bet for them because they know that no matter what, there will always be people that just want vanilla. However, they lose business from those that want anything but vanilla. Instead of trying to beat Home Depot at their own game, why don’t we try being something completely different? Why must we close the gap at all? What if we instead tried widening it, to the point where Home Depot begins to emulate us? We can play it safe, sure, and feel like we’ve accomplished something each quarter and be content with mediocrity. Or, we can set our sets higher and achieve more than we ever thought possible.
How we do this is completely reliant on how we treat our associates. We must look at them in terms of the value that they will bring to the floor instead of how much its going to set us back. When we do this, we inevitably raise our standards because we want associates that are not only knowledgeable, but friendly and are willing to go the distance for our customers. If you talk to any corporate parrot you will hear the phrase “You get what you put into it” more than you would care to hear. Why don’t we try practicing what we preach and put into our associates what we want to get? If we want honest, hard-working, dedicated, and passionate associates then we must first be willing to be the same for them. If that means paying them a little more to show our faith in them, is that truly a price too large? Sir Richard Branson once said “Train your associates well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so that they will not want to.” What we have instead is what I can only describe as a pathetic excuse for training paired with an almost insulting amount of payment for the knowledge we simply aren’t getting.
HR also told me that you have fired some people responsible for this mess, which I think is a good start. However, I do not believe that approaching this from a top-down perspective is going to get you far in achieving success. I believe you need to see things from an associate’s perspective. Anyone knows that a building is only as strong as its foundation, and we are the foundation for Lowe’s. We need to heavily inspect our foundation and see things from the bottom up. I’m not saying push carts for 8 hours in 90 degree weather while head cashiers breathe down your neck as they respond to pressure from their managers because they can’t morally sell EPP’s to customers without telling them, but it might be a good start.
I don’t know if you have read my last two letters but the response to them has been monumental. People from around the country have resonated with what I have said to such a degree that they are printing out copies and passing them around the store. I have spoken with so many wonderful people that wish that you would see the letters in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, you could be the change that we so desperately need. I take the response that I have gotten to be overwhelming evidence that something is terribly wrong in the way we think about retail, so this is our chance to be something different. I want us to rise above this petty “Orange vs Blue” mindset and instead focus on what makes Blue unique. Focus on what makes Blue special. And perhaps, someday soon, you will come to find;
It will always be, quite simply, us.