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Jamaican power - Kingston girl takes Grandma's advice to the top of Fortune 500 company

Published:Tuesday | November 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Robert Lalah

Lunchtime Conversations with Robert Lalah

In 1981, 16-year-old Ann-Marie Campbell left Jamaica with her family in search of a better life in the United States. Once there, she enrolled in college, and to help pay the lofty school bills, took a job as a part-time cashier at The Home Depot. She didn't have much then, but what she had were the words of her grandma echoing in her mind: "Whatever you do, do to the best of your ability." Today, the one-time cashier is president of The Home Depot's Southern Division, overseeing 690 stores and 100,000 employees. She has also, this year, been added to Fortune Magazine's list of the most powerful women in business. For all this, she credits her grandmother's teachings.

"My grandmother had a store in St Thomas - 19 Queen Street in Morant Bay. It was called Phidd's Furniture Store. I would go there to stay with her on holidays. I loved it! That was my first exposure to retail, and watching how my grandmother interacted with people always stayed with me," said Campbell. "She would go out and sit on the piazza and everyone who passed by, she would say hello to them. I would wonder why she was going out of her way to reach out to people, and she would tell me that everyone is a potential customer. She would say, 'They might not be shopping now, but one day they will and they will remember me.'"

Campbell was born in Kingston and attended Holy Childhood High School before she migrated. She said the discipline she learned at school helped her cope when she moved to the States.

"The Jamaican school system is very competitive. We would always compete to see who would come first in class. That competitive spirit pushed me to go for more in life. I was also a boarder. That taught me a lot. I had to learn how to interact with different people from all over and get along with them. We had to wake up in time to attend mass at 6 o' clock every morning. That discipline was good for me at that age and it never left me," she said.

impressed manager

Campbell is bubbly and friendly. Her near-constant smile is wide and warm. It's that welcoming personality that helped get her noticed at The Home Depot. While she was still a cashier, a senior manager was conducting a walk-through of her branch and when he asked a question, it was the confident Jamaican who spoke up. So impressed was the manager by Campbell's response, that he became a mentor to her, always encouraging her to go up for promotions, even when she didn't believe she was ready. Today, it's Campbell who is the mentor to many.

"I try to help people be the best they can be. One of the favourite parts of my job is doing store visits. I love using these as opportunities to find the next Ann-Marie. I look for people who have the will, the energy and the smarts and then help them in any way I can," she said.

"Everyone needs help at some point and I believe that people who work hard and show that they want an opportunity, deserve an opportunity."

ability to cope

Many people migrate to the States every year and not all of them make it to positions like Campbell's. I asked her what she thinks accounts for her rise to the top of a Fortune 500 company. "I think that one of the things that worked in my favour from very early on, is my ability to cope," she said. "I don't complain about challenges. I know and accept from the get-go that there are going to be speedbumps and potholes along the way. In spite of this, I know I needed to make things happen. Successful people are those who figure this out."

Campbell said many of her fellow Jamaican immigrants work at The Home Depot and they are always thrilled when she visits their branches. "Jamaicans love when you represent, so they come up to me and I tell them that the person I am today is 1,000 per cent because of my upbringing and the Jamaican values that were instilled in me. I tell them this to encourage them to shoot for the stars, no matter how hard it might seem," she said.

Campbell has been married for 27 years. Her husband, Christopher is a chef and is originally from Oracabessa, St Mary. They have two sons, and Campbell has been insisting that the boys learn the value of networking from early. "One mistake I made at the start of my career was trying to go it alone. I tell my sons about the value of building a network and of nurturing that network. It's never too early to learn this," she said.

Campbell and her family travel to Jamaica frequently to spend time on the north coast. She doesn't have any close family here anymore, only some distant cousins. However, her love for the island has not diminished over the years. "I love Jamaica dearly. The food, the atmosphere, everything. I cherish my Jamaican roots," she said.

Campbell has some advice for Jamaicans who move to the States in search of success.

"The environment you create when you get to the States is going to be very important. Don't expect it to be like Jamaica. It's not. But you have to learn how to focus on opportunities and not challenges. Take all that you've learnt in Jamaica and apply it. Let it work for you. Be bold. Focus on what you want to achieve, ignore the negatives and don't let anything stand in your way," she said.