“I can think of fewer people better fit to lead this lecture series than the man we have with us tonight,” said Dean of the Eli Broad College of Business Sanjay Gupta as he opened the 2017 Warrington Lecture. Over 300 students packed an auditorium to hear from the man Gupta said inspires him, as well as businesses around the world to follow a value-based approach to business: Craig Menear, president and CEO of The Home Depot.

Edward and Jeannine James present Menear with a Warrington Lecture memento.

Edward and Jeannine James presented Menear with a Warrington Lecture memento.

The annual Warrington Lecture, established by Edward and Jeannine James to honor Jeannine’s father Sylvan Warrington, invites c-suite Spartan alumni back to campus to speak about ethics-related issues and topics for which they feel most passionate. Menear graduated from the Broad College in 1979 and has been in the retail industry ever since with the likes of Ikea, Builders Emporium, and Montgomery Ward. He joined Home Depot in 1997 and has served in his current leadership role since 2014.

This year, rather than a traditional speaking engagement, Gupta and Menear engaged in a conversational fireside chat (similar to a talk show) to have a more open conversation with one another and to engage with students in the audience. No topic was off limits, and Menear addressed tough questions related to diversity, disaster preparedness, and the challenges of stores in an e-commerce world.

Gupta and Menear's engaging conversation welcomed commentary and discussion with students.

Gupta and Menear’s engaging conversation welcomed commentary and discussion with students.

Speaking before a room on Millennials and Generation Z students, Menear explained how the new economy and digital revolution has impacted the brick-and-mortar retailer. “By nature, we aren’t an online company! These days, customers are in complete control, which has changed Home Depot’s model drastically,” Menear said. “Now, we need to make ‘coming to the store’ an experience for customers and have exactly what they want – while also balancing our online presence and engagement. For Home Depot, it’s now a blended experience,” he explained.

That customer experience is something that extends beyond the buying experience and into customers’ lives in the toughest of times. Gupta asked Menear how Home Depot, headquartered in Atlanta and within hurricane zone, was coping with recent disasters.

“Things that we’re seeing today with hurricanes require our company to go all in and make sure our associates and our customers are safe. Home Depot was hit hard in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew, and ever since has had an extensive plan in place for our people and our communities,” Menear said. This includes a command center that monitors weather patterns and oversees relief efforts, deploying resources from stores to communities in need and support for store associates and their families. In fact, many Home Depot employees contribute to its foundation, which supports its associates’ families in need.

Perhaps what struck a chord most with the audience was Menear’s sincere passion for diversity and inclusion, and commitment to Home Depot associates. When Gupta asked Menear what he thought to be the “secret sauce to success” as a company and a leader, Menear responded simply with, “our culture.”

“Diversity is critical for us to understand the needs of our customers, and it brings different points of view to the table when you’re making decisions. Last year, 47 percent of Home Depot’s new hires were diverse. Diversity and inclusion is critical to understand our customers – whether that be communication style or speaking a different language, or understanding where our customers are coming from,” he said.

Reflecting on Home Depot’s regular employee events, which Menear attends regularly, he feels a tremendous sense of pride in the culture of the company and the associates supporting day-to-day life. “At these events, I hear from people who might have been in a bad spot before working for us, or who really needed something stable to keep them moving forward. They feel a sense of commitment and pride in working for us, and we feel the same for them. You root for them and for their success,” he said.

The customer-first and associated sense of pride is something felt throughout the company, which shows through the “pyramid-shaped” structure, Menear explained. “At the very top of our corporate structure are our customers, with associates directly following. These people keep us going and reinforce our culture and values,” he said. Referencing Home Depot’s trademark orange aprons, Menear said, “We are an ‘orange-blooded family’ from the top down and inside out, we really live and breathe these values and our people. That’s the secret sauce that will keep moving forward for years to come,” he said.