Tillman, Robert L. ca. 1944–
Robert L. Tillman
President, chairman, and chief executive officer, Lowe's Companies
Born: ca. 1944.
Education: University of North Carolina, BS, 1967.
Family: Married Sandy (maiden name unknown).
Career: Lowe's Companies, 1962–1994, entry level office manager trainee, executive vice president, chief operating officer, executive vice president of merchandising, and senior vice president of merchandising and marketing; 1994–1996, CEO, 1996–, president and CEO; 1998–, chairman.
Awards: Named one of the Best Managers, BusinessWeek, 2003.
Address: Lowe's Companies, 1605 Curtis Bridge Road, Wilkesboro, North Carolina 28697; http://www.lowes.com.
■ Robert Tillman's vision of what a home-improvement store can be and do transformed Lowe's from a chain of small North Carolina hardware stores into a Fortune 100 company of state-of-the-art home improvement superstores. As head of the nation's second-largest home-improvement chain, Tillman not only spearheaded the store's expansion into markets nationwide but also created new niches for Lowe's.
Tillman came to Lowe's in 1962 as an office manager trainee, working his way to the top. Tillman's many jobs with the company included a number of management positions, such as executive vice president and chief operating officer, executive vice president of merchandising, and senior vice president of merchandising and marketing. With each position, Tillman gained more knowledge of the company's inner workings while striving to improve the chain's position among home improvement stores. Tillman joined the company's board of directors in 1994, was named president and CEO in 1996, and in 1998 became chairman of the board.
FROM HARDWARE STORE TO BIG BOX STORE
Shortly before Tillman took over Lowe's, the chain lagged behind the newer and bigger Home Depot chain. Tillman, however, saw a chance to revitalize Lowe's and put the company in the number-one slot as well as improve the overall standards and reputation of the chain. He began by conducting extensive consumer research. Based on those efforts, Tillman recognized an important market that had been largely over-looked: women. According to the studies, women initiated approximately 80 percent of home projects. To capitalize on that fact, Tillman moved aggressively to court female customers to Lowe's stores. He initiated an overhaul of many of the chain's existing stores and a design of new outlets with women in mind. The result was larger and cleaner stores (on average, new Lowe's stores cover 115,000 square feet with an additional 35,000 square feet for lawn and garden areas), with wider aisles, better lighting, and more home appliances, high-end bathroom fixtures, and signature paint collections from such noted fashion and home designers as Laura Ashley and Alexander Julian as well as a children's paint collection based on cartoon characters featured on the children's cable network Nick-elodeon. In essence, Lowe's began to offer a greater variety of upscale products. For instance, Lowe's has an extensive blinds-and-draperies section; in appliance sales alone, Lowe's is second behind Sears. The chain also stepped up its installation services. As Tillman remarked in an interview for the New York Times, "We want to do your whole house, and deliver it to you" (May 4, 2003).
Beginning in 1998 Tillman undertook an aggressive expansion program for the chain. The chain began moving out of the South and into markets in the Northeast, such as New York City, and also into the Midwest and Southwest. Tillman then directed the expansion of Lowe's stores into more urban settings in midsize to large cities. To spark expansion in the West, Tillman bought Eagle Hardware, a chain of warehouse home-improvement stores. The acquisition of Eagle also marked the first time that Lowe's had expanded by acquiring other store chains instead of simply building its own stores. Under Tillman's guidance, Lowe's began a remarkable turnaround. By 2001, just three years after Tillman took control of the company, Lowe's had posted a record $1 billion in net earnings for the first time and was named a Fortune 100 company. Lowe's stock also emerged as second-best performer of all large-cap stocks.
By 2003 the chain had reported sales of $30.8 billion and was serving approximately 10 million customers a week in more than 950 stores in 45 states. Lowe's also earned the distinction of being named by Fortune magazine the Most Admired Specialty Retailer for 2003 and 2004. By the end of the 2004 fiscal year Lowe's operated 952 stores in 45 states, with approximately 108.8 million square feet of retail space stocking more than 40,000 items and with hundreds of thousands of other items available through Lowe's special-order system. But as Tillman noted, what made Lowe's success so remarkable was not that the company took away business from Home Depot but rather that it was carving out new markets for itself. After 41 years with the company, Lowe's announced that Robert Tillman was to retire as president. However, Tillman remained with Lowe's as its chief executive and chairman of the company.
Tillman's management style favored a low-key approach. Employees addressed him simply as "Bob," which he preferred. His first office as head of merchandizing, in the company's two-story headquarters in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, was toward the back of the building, near the merchandising staff he headed. When he was named CEO in 1994, Tillman was asked to move to the company's Executive Row at the front of the building. He refused and instead chose a windowless office in the middle of the building, stating that the ideal executive's office should be in the center of the building, with all the company's operating areas fanning out from it. As president and CEO, Tillman made a point of having dinner with Lowe's customers every month, in an effort to find out what could be done to make Lowe's the first choice in home-improvement shopping. Ultimately, while Tillman worked to make Lowe's the top home-improvement store in the country, he saw no reason to compete with Home Depot in terms of demographics. Instead of going after men, who make up a large part of the Home Depot trade, Tillman instead focused on making Lowe's the family store among home-improvement chains.
See also entry on Lowe's Companies, Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories.
sources for further information
"Interview," Atlanta Business Chronicle, October 10, 1997.
Nowell, Paul, "Lowe's Success Coming at Least Partly at Home Depot's Expense," Associated Press State & Local Wire, June 5, 2002.
Pascual, Aixa M., "Lowe's Is Sprucing Up Its House," BusinessWeek, June 3, 2002, p. 56.
Rozhon, Tracie, "So, Which Man Will Sell You That Drywall?" New York Times, May 4, 2003.
Stewart, Thomas, "Get the New Power Game If You Want to Get Ahead of the Curve and Stay There," Fortune, January 13, 1997, p. 58+.