Rosalind Brewer’s Second Act

Changing jobs at the height of her career led to the CEO spot at Sam’s Club

Rosalind Brewer, President & CEO of Sam's Club

Not too many corporate executives would abandon a global president title in a relatively secure corporate environment. In 2006, however, that’s exactly what Rosalind Brewer did when she accepted an offer to join Walmart—a company in transition at the time, with falling sales and an embattled reputation, particularly around diversity practices. She would take this leap to a new industry and a position far below her previous status. But for the seasoned consumer packaged goods professional, “being uncomfortable” has always been a professional motivator. The fact that Walmart was in the arduous process of repositioning its brand made it more of a gamble. After six months of negotiation, Brewer came aboard as vice president of operations for Georgia—and made swift impact.

Managing 140 stores in the state, Brewer became a student of Walmart and its culture, quickly assessing the business, applying strategic focus to her growing real estate, and building her team. She was promoted in four months to president of Walmart’s Southeast division.

By 2010, Walmart’s senior management realigned the organization to focus on consumer engagement and increasing scale; it grouped U.S. operations into three distinct areas. Brewer was tapped as president of its Eastern business unit, responsible for generating $110 billion in revenue through the operation of 1,600 stores—from Puerto Rico to Maine—and the management of nearly 500,000 associates. Her next promotion would make history. After Brian Cornell resigned as head of Walmart’s Sam’s Club subsidiary, Brewer was installed as president and CEO of the warehouse club, a $53.8 billion division representing 12% of Walmart’s business. Overseeing management of all its U.S. properties, Brewer, 50, is the first woman and first African American to hold a CEO title at the retailing leviathan, achieving one of the most powerful positions within corporate America.

“What she’s been able to accomplish is huge,” says Marlon Cousin, managing partner for The Marquin Group, an Atlanta-based leadership development firm for minority professionals. “Coming from a consumer packaged goods environment, where else could you go and manage that scale of business?” he asks, referring to her former role as head of Walmart’s Eastern business unit. “One hundred billion dollars is equivalent to the size of a lot of [top] companies. It’s just as big as Verizon and almost as big as Bank of America.There aren’t a lot of professionals anywhere who can say they’ve managed $100 billion worth of business.” Brewer now oversees a division with revenues that could place it as the nation’s 52nd largest company. “To put it in perspective, The Coca-Cola Co. is $46 billion. Kraft is $54 billion,” Cousin says of companies with revenues comparable to those of Sam’s Club.

Within a six-year span, Brewer, who came to Walmart with no retail experience, has helped reshape how the company conducts business, focusing on tenets and strategies that have directed her entire professional life. “Roz came to us with an outstanding background in consumer packaged goods more than five years ago. During that time I have seen her develop into a talented merchant and retailer,” says Walmart Stores Inc. President and CEO Michael Duke. “She has strong strategic, analytical, and operational skills, and has successfully managed a large and complex business.”

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