Bernie Marcus on giving away money, writing a book, leading a company

At 81, Bernie Marcus is busy – giving away most of his money and writing a book.

He opened up on both topics and a good bit more when we sat down last week.

Bernie Marcus

Bernie Marcus

Marcus said the lion’s share of his wealth, which Forbes estimates at $1.5 billion, will be donated to charity.

This summer, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett challenged the nation’s billionaires to donate at least half of their wealth. Marcus is among those who have signed their “Giving Pledge.”

But Marcus told me he’s not leaving anywhere close to half to his family. They will be taken care of, although not excessively.

“My kids are not going to end up with my money. They’re OK,” Marcus said. “I’ve been giving away money for 25 years. . . . The vast majority will go to charity — in my life and after.”

Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, donated about $250 million to launch the Georgia Aquarium. He founded the Marcus Institute, which provides comprehensive services for kids with developmental disabilities. And his Marcus Foundation focuses on children, medical research, free enterprise, Jewish causes and the community – causes likely to continue to receive funds.

While continuing his philanthropic work, Marcus is also venting his spleen on current affairs in a new book, due out next year.

The theme is how he and Arthur Blank, also a philanthropist, would not be able to create a giant like Home Depot if they started today.

“Home Depot could never have 2,000 stores. We’d be lucky to have five, six, seven or eight,” he said. “There is no way this could ever grow [big] because of the litigation and regulations.”

But Bernie, we fell into this financial mess partly because of deregulation, didn’t we?

That doesn’t justify the over-regulation the Obama administration signed into law as part of the financial reform, he replied.

Marcus, a top prospect for the Tea Party, is a big believer in a limited government that allows businesses to create wealth and jobs – and cuts deficits rather than grows them.

But Keynesian economics says that when consumers and businesses take a timeout from spending, the federal government needs to step up spending or the downturn will get worse.

Hogwash, Marcus essentially replied. (He actually used a stronger word but this is a family newspaper.)

“I ran an $80 billion business. The government is creating unsustainable debt,” he said. “You support people who hire people.”

Small and medium-sized businesses – which he defined as those with $250 million or less in annual revenue – create the bulk of jobs in this country. The government’s role, he said, is to “get out of their way.”

“If you don’t have fat cats, who creates the jobs?” he asked rhetorically.

Marcus also had strong views about the best ways to lead a company:

– “Never look back and relive your mistakes. Only learn from your mistakes,” he said. CEOs should not spend time blaming people. They should fix problems as quickly as possible.

– “Listening is very, very important,” he said. Top execs need to surround themselves with people willing to challenge their ideas. There is a difference between a negative voice and a constructive one with a better idea. Don’t confuse the two.

“Nobody was afraid of me,” he said. That meant lots of give-and-take that produced better ideas than a more authoritarian structure would have. He believes in the “inverted pyramid” in which listening to customers and store employees becomes the key to success.

That approach needs to pervade a company’s entire culture, including the interaction of the top bananas. “Arthur and I were totally opposites. We learned to listen to each other,” he said.

– “You have to take risks or you’re in deep trouble,” he said. That doesn’t mean you’re careless. You have to think it through. But capitalism requires risks.

During the interview, Marcus was pessimistic about the direction of the country. At the same time, he was bullish about Home Depot’s current CEO, Frank Blake.

“Blake came after a disaster,” Marcus said. “I hired [Bob] Nardelli. I made a mistake. I thought a non-retailer could adapt to retailing. But he didn’t listen. He knew it all. . . . Blake was the last guy I would have picked. But he’s been brilliant.”


“He listens and learns.”

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10 comments Add your comment


October 5th, 2010
6:19 am

Bernie for president!


October 5th, 2010
8:03 am

I think it would an interesting to learn why Marcus believed Nardelli would be a winner and why Blake was his last choice. To his own admission he (Marcus) was 180 degrees wrong. Therefore, his selection criteria was flawed. Many organizations make mission critical mistakes in selecting leaders maybe others could learn from Marcus and avoid making similar decisions.


October 5th, 2010
8:42 am

Home Depot was started under a Democratic president, Carter, and had eight years of it’s strongest growth years under Clinton. So the visceral reaction to Obama and Democrats is more emotion and bluster than fact when it comes to business success. That just diminishes the credibility of any argument Democrats are bad for business. If anything, its the Nardelli philosophy Republicans Bernie should be blaming. Bernie’s vehemence reminds me of the preachers who decry gays so loudly they’re really one of them. Without money, Bernie, Marcus would be a Democrat.


October 5th, 2010
11:50 am

Mr. Marcus needs to stick to philanthropy and stay out of politics. The world would be a better place without Home Depot and Walmart. How many of those small businesses did he bury? He needs to review the Economic Surveys of 2002 and 2007 to dispel the myth about the small business engine.


October 5th, 2010
12:33 pm

Yes Home Depot started under Carter but it took off under Reagan and it was Reagans policies that set up the 90’s to be such a huge success. BTW, I voted for Clinton both times: could’nt stand Bush Sr who was really just a hawkish Democrat RINO much like his son. Let me point out that Home Depot and Walmart were @ one time small businesses themselves. Should they have halted their growth in order to try and save those small businesses you so fondly speak of? What about Costco, Kroger, Publix, Macy’s, Walgreen’s? Should they have stopped their growth to save the small town merchant? What about the local butcher and baker? Should we prevent grocery stores from having those things inside their stores? Do you really want to go back to the time when you had to visit the grocer, the baker, the butcher to provide stuff for your family?


October 5th, 2010
2:23 pm

Great article – look forward to the book.


October 5th, 2010
3:26 pm


October 5th, 2010
12:33 pm

We need big business to provide customers for the small ones, but enough is enough. Walmart competes with all the other companies you mention and has too much control over its vendors. I don’t think Mr. Sam would be pleased with its current business model.


October 5th, 2010
8:46 pm

Starting under Carter in 1976, by the end of the 12 year Reagan Bush era Home Depot had 174 stores at year end 1991. By the end of the 8 year Clinton period, they had 1,134 stores. They did better under Democrats, and taxes were higher. They don’t do better when income skews to the wealthy, but when the middle class has money to fix their homes.


October 6th, 2010
7:48 am

Let God will be done thru this blog

Depot Don

October 6th, 2010
6:51 pm

Can bernie go to home depot and tell the store managers to put people in departments that know what they are talking about and not these clueless morons working their now that don’t know the difference between a crescent wrench, a crescent moon and a crescent sandwich?