Aylwin Lewis stepped before an audience of about 80 people Sept. 8 and received an enthusiastic ovation. And consider who these fans were: H. Carl McCall, former New York State comptroller and gubernatorial candidate; Hugh Price, former president of the National Urban League; John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Capital Management; Charles Tribbett, principal at Russell Reynolds Assoc.; and more of the most powerful African Americans in Corporate America.
They were gathered for the fourth annual Black Directors Conference, an invitation-only event in Chicago, and these luminaries were applauding Lewis's just-announced appointment as CEO of Sears Holdings (SHLD). Maybe Sears -- which merged in March, 2005, with Kmart -- isn't the household name it once was. But Lewis' colleagues know this: It's still a $55 billion conglomerate with more than 2,000 stores, including its Kmart locations and other brands. And so they expressed their pride in their newly decorated peer.
Of course, Lewis is no stranger to power posts. He has held key positions at KFC (YUM) and Kmart, and he sits on the Walt Disney (DIS) board of directors. But now, he has become part of an elite group: the handful of African Americans who run some of the world's biggest companies.
What does that mean to Lewis? And what are his plans? He paused for few moments to share his thoughts with BusinessWeek Deputy Chicago Bureau Chief Roger O. Crockett. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
How do you feel now that you're CEO of a major U.S. corporation?
It's an honor and a pleasure, and I'm humbled by it. Sincerely. I recognize the importance. There's a lot of people counting on me to do well. I feel that responsibility.
How will you define success?
I believe success in my immediate job is directly tied to my effort, the people I surround myself with, and making this thing work. I don't take it lightly. It's rolling up your sleeves and getting to work, and bringing great effort every day.
How much are you conscious of the fact that you're an African-American CEO, given that there are so few in Corporate America.
I'm 51-years-old, and 51 years ago I didn't even have the right to think that I could have a job like this. I had great parents and I have a great wife. Growing up, we lived in the projects. I had big dreams.
But I could have lived a great American dream running a hundred restaurants for KFC. That would have been a nice career that would have been very good success, particularly for a black person. So it means a lot, keeping this door open. The history of this thing, the importance of this thing, yeah, you betcha it's important. And it's not a burden. It's a wind in my sail.
I hate to use the cliche, but is it important to you to be a role model for aspiring black executives?
I don't mind being a role model, and I don't mind being the only one. This is about, how do I extend this so that it's easier for the next generation? So they don't have to think that they're an exception. They should expect to reach jobs like this.
What's the key to your success in climbing the ladder?
You're here to serve, you're here to help others. These roles and the trappings of these roles, you can't get caught up in them. You win by helping other people win.
I'm a learner. You've got to always go and be a student and continue to learn. I would have been dead meat leaving the restaurant industry coming to the retail industry if I didn't have the aptitude to say, "I'm a student of life and I have to learn every day."
You must have had mentors along the way that have helped you, right?
I've had tremendous people helping me. I haven't done this by myself. Some of it is my disposition, but a lot of it is that people took the time. For example, David Novak [CEO of Yum Brands] was a big mentor. Part of my ascension at Yum was because he took an interest in me.
What are the biggest challenges that face you as CEO of Sears?
One is building the culture. We've brought two retailers together [Sears and Kmart]. We have to have one culture. We have to be able to attract and retain very highly skilled people. There's no substitute for talent.
And we have to put the business together where we can be competitive. We believe we have a lot of assets, a lot of brands. We have great real estate. How do you put that all together where you can compete and win? This merger gives us the time to do that. This merger gives us the financial wherewithal to do that.
Having a majority owner as a chairman [Sears Chairman and investment guru Edward Lampert] is very beneficial because it cuts through all the B.S. You clearly understand what the motives are of the enterprise and how we're going to invest. There are no qualms about that stuff.
And we look at the business differently. At the end of the day, we look at cash-flow targets. We look at other measures, but that's the main measure we look at. One of the things that attracted me to the position when I first met Eddie was we want to have time to do this thing well. Chasing the daily sales numbers, chasing the monthly numbers, may not be the right long term thing. So running this in the public domain as a private company, that really is what I wanted to do.
Will you share some insight into the strategic direction you have planned for Sears?
First, just getting back to basics. There are some things we need to fix: customer experience, supply chain, IT, replenishment. Those are real big issues we're facing. The inherent strength around what we will attempt to do is built on customer relationships and the trust that's inherent in Sears.
Will it take a lot of good marketing to reach people?
Oh yeah. We have an agency picked. We want to show people that we do end-to-end. You buy something from us and we repair it. We have that in our arsenal. But we don't communicate that well. I don't think the public knows that. We can fix things for you, and we offer great protection agreements.
We're working on all that. People still trust the Sears name. Almost everybody in America at one point had a good experience with that brand, that company. And that's a great place to start. The brand can be resurrected, and that's what we plan to do.