She’s arguably the most powerful businesswoman in Atlanta. Not only is Carol Tomé the chief financial officer of Georgia’s largest company – Home Depot – but she chairs two heavyweight organizations – the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank and Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Tomé, 55, is the only senior Home Depot executive who’s worked for all of the retailer’s top leaders – co-founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, Bob Nardelli and Frank Blake. She talks about the lessons learned while growing up in a small Wyoming town, joining a bankrupt company, and the advice she received from Marcus and Blank, as well as her advice for women executives.
Q: Did something early in your life help you in your career?
A: I owe a lot of my success to my parents, because they instilled in me, as a very little girl, the idea that I could do anything and be anybody that I wanted to be – and I believed them.
I grew up in Jackson, Wyoming, a small town of about 2,000 people at that time. My parents gave me the opportunity to do everything, from the simplest things of learning how to cook and sew, and hunt and fish, to opportunities to go to Europe when I was pretty young.
My dad was an independent banker. My plan was to work for him. But when I was in the last year of graduate school, my father called me and said, “I’ve got some news. After 27 years of marriage, I’m divorcing your mom. And I’m selling the bank.”
So all of a sudden, my career plan was upside down. But because my parents had given me a sense of confidence that I could do anything, I went ahead and became a banker. I got a job with a large bank in Colorado.
Q: You took a risk, leaving that Colorado bank after about seven years and joining a bankrupt company. Would you please talk about that?
A: One of my clients at the bank, the Johns Manville Corp., asked me to help them consummate their Chapter 11 plan of reorganization. I said to myself that this would really be a great experience, because you’re working with bankruptcy lawyers, financial statements and a bankrupt company.
My father thought leaving a solid banking institution for a bankrupt company was crazy. But I said that this risk will be good because I’ll learn. Boy, did I learn. As soon as we came out of bankruptcy, we started to grow. I was on the deal team and we were acquiring companies around the world.
It was an experience of a lifetime, but I wouldn’t want to repeat it. We had to do a lot of cost cutting. It’s horrible. You have a parade of people coming into your office and I’m saying: “I’m sorry to have to tell you that your job is being eliminated.” That stuff is hard. But we needed to do it. I learned about the need to be compassionate for the person who’s being impacted by this, but also being relentless in terms of what the right thing is for the shareholder.
Q: As a senior executive, starting as treasurer, you’ve worked for all four of Home Depot’s CEOs. What are your most important takeaways?
A: I just celebrated my 17th anniversary here. It’s been an amazing ride. I learned the importance of staying focused on your core business. Also, I’ve learned the importance of staying focused on the customer.
When I joined the company, Arthur told me, “Carol, we don’t know how high up you will go. That’s for you to show us. But we will give you every opportunity to reach your highest potential.” Those words have stayed with me since the day I came here – to make sure I’m giving my team the same opportunity.
Also, loyalty really matters. I bleed orange. I love what I do. These aren’t just words. This is from my heart. To paraphrase writer Maya Angelou: Don’t make money your goal. Do what you love and do it so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.
Q: There has been a long-term scarcity of women in the top jobs at major public companies in Georgia. What is your best advice for women seeking to rise up the corporate ranks?
A: Cast your net wide and establish a large network of people. These are people who you help, people who you sponsor and people who you can use as mentors. I’m incredibly blessed because I have a huge, wide network.
I’m talking about internal and external networks. Get involved in non-profit organizations. For any person who wants to grow, you first have to give.
But first, I have to make sure I’m doing my paying job. So I’ve surrounded myself with the best and brightest people – people who are smarter than me, bigger than me and better than me. They lift me up so that I can do other things. And, in turn, I empower them, I hold them accountable and I get out of their way.
It’s a 360 approach. I’ve got a supportive boss, an unbelievable team and a wide network. For any woman, that’s the secret to success, isn’t it?
Q: What’s been the biggest mistake you’ve made at Home Depot?
A: I will say that through the years, I’ve sometimes made a bad hire because I was anxious to fill the role. Even though my gut was telling me that this may not be the right person, I went ahead and made the hire. And then sadly, it didn’t work out. So I learned to slow it down. It’s OK to have the role open until you get the right person.
Also, candidly, when I became the CFO in 2001, Bernie called me into his office. He told me to use my charm on Wall Street. But he also said that he would not know if I was doing my job well internally, unless someone called me a name I do not want to repeat, indicating I was a tough boss. But I learned that I was too hard, so I had to soften up a bit.
Don’t try to be anyone but who you are. Just be real genuine. When I knit hats for the babies of Wall Street analysts, it’s because I like to knit hats and I like to give hats to little children. I’m going to be me.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.