Shortly after Roz Brewer became General Manager of Sam’s Club in 2012, making history as the first woman and first African American to lead a division of Walmart, she was at an elite event in New York City.
Despite the fact that only GMs had been invited, another guest kept asking her what she was doing at the warehouse club retailer – marketing? merchandising? – apparently struggling to understand that she handled everything.
“I took the podium as a keynote [speaker] for the day and I enjoyed the look on her face when my bio was read, ”she recalls later.
This week, she added another prejudice-defying milestone to her bio when the U.S.-listed drugstore group Walgreens Boots Alliance hired her from Starbucks to be its general manager.
When she takes over in March, she will be the only African-American woman at the head of an S&P 500 company and one of five black CEOs of that club at a time when investor pressure, consumers and employees are forcing American companies to explain why their leaders are so unlike the rest of the United States.
His appointment was, tweeted private equity chief Robert Smith, both a great achievement and “a reminder of the amount of work that remains to be done.”
Stefano Pessina, the 79-year-old billionaire who will become the executive chairman of the WBA when Ms Brewer takes charge, told the Financial Times he knew the appointment would be welcomed internally at a time when diversity had become “fundamental. For any business.
But, he added, “you don’t select the CEO for the psychological effect he or she may have; you have to watch [their] intrinsic qualities. Ms. Brewer, he added, “prefers to be seen for what she is: a fantastic manager, a fantastic operator and not just an African American woman.”
WBA needs an exceptional operator. Formed by the merger in 2014 of the American chain Walgreens with Alliance Boots domiciled in Switzerland, the group has underperformed the market over the past five years. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced the number of customers visiting its 21,000 stores, while placing it at the forefront of a vaccination effort that is under scrutiny.
Boots closed dozens of outlets last year, at a cost of more than 4,000 jobs, as its parent company took a $ 2 billion depreciation charge against its investment in the UK.
In Mr. Pessina’s eyes, the cycle that started with the merger and that generated billions of dollars in savings is ending, and “something new has to be found: a big or a big change in the company to start a new cycle ”.
According to him, what will define the next chapter of WBA is consumer-centric technology. As COO of Starbucks, which has drawn much of its recent growth superior to industry From her popular mobile app, Ms. Brewer has been intimately involved in the development of one of retail’s most admired digital strategies.
Her year on the Amazon board, which she is now leaving, has also raised hopes on Wall Street for the e-commerce prospects she will bring.
“With Covid accelerating consumerism and the digitization of healthcare, bringing an outside perspective can be refreshing in an industry that has traditionally been slow to change,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote as WBA stock jumped on his appointment.
The 58-year-old is used to bringing in an outsider’s perspective. Raised in Detroit by parents who worked shift work at General Motors, she was the first in her family to attend college, attending Spelman College, the historically black women’s college whose alumni include a political strategist. Stacey Abrams.
Her degree in organic chemistry took her to Kimberly-Clark, where she spent 22 years before joining Walmart, and honed her analytical skills.
She was chosen to join Starbucks’ board of directors in January 2017, but within months its chief executive, Kevin Johnson, made her one of its top executives. (Unusually for a COO, she retained her seat on the board.)
Her career progression may seem easy, she told Spelman students in an early 2018 speech, but she was often given “the most unwanted jobs,” which managers expected. that she fails.
Her generation of black women was defined by their persistence, Ms. Brewer told students, but “no matter how high we fly, we always hit the glass dome built by our biased culture.” It was always, she said, “a male and white world.”
She was confirmed in this view when she received death threats after expressing the mundane opinion in an interview with CNN that diversity made good business sense.
“It was a nasty, nasty reminder that every day people of color face such blatant, so emboldened and yet so normalized systemic racism,” she recalls.
Another shocking recall came in 2018 when a Starbucks store manager in Philadelphia called the police on two young black entrepreneurs in 2018. Ms Brewer hopped on a plane, spent days talking to everyone involved, and was instrumental in the company’s decision to close its stores to train staff to recognize racial prejudice.
The lesson, she told Spelman’s students, was that they should “get up, get behind the wheel and take charge. . . Too often people take responsibility and do nothing. But not me, nor under my supervision.