Home Depot's Hardware Warriors

The DIY store is drafting former military officers to lead the charge against rivals Wal-Mart and Lowe's.

Madeline Toft used to fly an attack helicopter and jump out of planes. As a captain in the U.S. Army, she led soldiers as they trained for war. Today, she's a hardware-store manager-in-training — one of more than 360 ex-military officers enrolled in Home Depot's Store Leadership Program.

These recruits don't all know power tools and paints — but that's almost beside the point. Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli discovered junior military officers (JMOs) when he ran General Electric Co.'s transportation business in the 1990s. They were intense, smart, and hardworking — and with four to eight years in the military, they had real leadership experience, often under challenging circumstances.

That's exactly what Home Depot needs. In the face of intense competition from Lowe's and Wal-Mart, the chain's same-store sales growth has flagged since 2000 — and its shares are down by nearly 50%. Nardelli wants to improve customers' experiences, overhaul information technology, and expand overseas. And to do all that, Home Depot needs leaders.

Traditionally, Home Depot store managers were experts in, well, hardware. Now "we look for people who deliver results, act strategically, and drive excellence," says Dennis Donovan, Home Depot's executive vice president for human resources. "Leaders excel in customer service, they inspire achievement, they live [with] integrity, they build strong relationships, and they create an environment of inclusion. [JMOs] have these essentials."

More than half of the participants in Home Depot's two-year-old Store Leadership Program are JMOs, often recruited at military outplacement fairs. Over two years, the new hires are grounded in both business skills and corporate culture. They're trained in stores and at forums taught by senior managers, including Nardelli. Upon graduation, they may run a store with, on average, more than $40 million in sales and 150 employees.

Toft, 32, expects to be running a store sometime next year. Her military training, she says, serves her well at Home Depot. "You have to motivate people to do their jobs well. You have to mentor, train, and grow associates within the store. That's what I did with my soldiers." And that's just what Home Depot wants now.

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