Aylwin Lewis Biography
When Texas native Aylwin Lewis became president and chief executive officer of the Kmart Holding Corporation in the fall of 2004, the job carried the distinction of making Lewis the highest ranking African-American executive in the U.S. retail industry. His authority increased immeasurably just a month later, when Kmart announced an $11 billion merger with another leading American retailer, Sears, Roebuck, which made him head of the third-largest retail chain in the United States. Lewis, noted Detroit News writer Tenisha Mercer, arrived at Kmart headquarters in Michigan "with a reputation as a high-energy team builder with a flair for marketing. He now faces the daunting challenge of reshaping a company on a long losing streak."
Lewis was 50 years old when he took the Kmart job in 2004. A native of Houston, Texas, he grew up in a Southern Baptist household headed by a father who held a number of jobs at a pipe-bending company over the years. Lewis recalled in one interview that his father was usually out the door by daybreak. "My mother and father were very hard working, believed in education, being honest and not taking shortcuts—always doing your best work," he said in a Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News article.
Guided by his parents' positive attitude, Lewis went on to captain his high school football team, and entered the University of Houston after graduation. He had earned dual bachelor's degrees in business management and English literature by 1976, and planned on a career in academia. In order to defray graduate-school costs, he took a job with the fast-food chain Jack in the Box while pursuing his doctorate in English literature. The job prompted a change in career plans, Lewis said in a Chicago Tribune interview with Barbara Rose and Michael Oneal that appeared in the Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. "I fell in love with the notion of serving customers," he recalled. "Even as an assistant manager, I liked doing the hiring, the ordering, overseeing the food quality. I loved being a leader."
Lewis earned his M.B.A. from the University of Houston, and went on to 25-year career as a fast-food industry executive. After moving up through the Jack in the Box ranks, he joined the restaurant division of Pepsico, which was later spun off into a corporate entity called Yum Brands. Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Yum was the world's largest restaurant company, with holdings that included Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food restaurants. Lewis headed various management posts within the company, including supervision of franchise operations. In the early 1990s, he oversaw KFC's area operations for Chicago and the Great Lakes region, and in 1996 was promoted to the post of chief operating officer of the KFC and Pizza Hut divisions.
Long known for a strong work ethic, Lewis was usually in the office at 6:30 a.m. He was also a skilled people person with a knack for putting others at ease while motivating them to improve sales numbers, which prompted co-workers to tag him with the nickname "Coach." He was also fair-minded and committed to leveling the playing field, once issuing a decree that forbid his company executives from discussing business while playing golf, on the premise that those who didn't play the sport were left out. By 2003 he had been made president and chief multibranding and operating officer of Yum's 33,000-restaurant empire.
On Labor Day weekend of 2004, however, he visited financier Edward Lampert at Lampert's Greenwich, Connecticut home. Two years earlier, Lampert had emerged as the largest shareholder of Kmart, the ailing Michigan-based retailer, and then managed to pull it out of bankruptcy. A string of retail veterans installed in the top slot had failed to improve the company's fortunes in the retail sector, however, and Lampert was looking for someone with a fresh vision. Lewis's track record in rebranding KFC and the other Yum entities certainly made up for what some industry analysts described as his lack of retail experience, and the announcement that he would take over the reins of one of America's leading retailers was greeted with some surprise in the business press in October of 2004.
Lewis embarked upon a four-month trip to 120 Kmart stores to meet with employees and take the pulse of the company from its most important nerve center: the sales floor. "My mission...is to come here and build a great company," the Detroit News report from Mercer quoted him as saying. "Kmart is a great brand in America. The hallmark again is to make the stores the essence of what we do. You can only make customers one place and make money one place. Customers are essential to what we do." Yet others noted that Kmart's situation was dire. Badly trounced by competitors Wal-Mart and Target in the past decade, Kmart's fortunes had declined so considerably that some analysts believed that the real estate holdings on which its stores and company headquarters in suburban Detroit sat were likely worth more than the company itself.
Predictions of Kmart's demise were shelved, however, when just a month after Lewis took over, Lampert announced that the company was merging with Sears to create a retail empire of nearly 3,500 stores and $55 billion in potential sales. Lewis only learned of the top-secret deal during his usual daily call with Lampert, and at the eleventh hour. Lampert asked him if he was ready for the challenge of running what would become the nation's third-largest retail chain, and as Lewis admitted to Rose and Oneal, "it was a little overwhelming. [But] immediately I thought, 'Well, why not?'...I'm a realist, so I understand the difficulties ahead, but the upside is tremendous."
Lewis is married, inherited his bookworm habit from his mother, and travels the world for pleasure when not in the office. He downplayed the significance of becoming one of the highest-ranking African Americans in corporate America in interviews, preferring to talk about the company and its attributes. "I have a positive and a negative reaction to it," he said in the Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News interview about his feelings about joining a small club that included Richard Parsons, chairman and chief executive of Time Warner, and Merrill Lynch president Stan O'Neal. Reflecting that much had changed since his own early youth in Texas in the 1950s, he conceded, "the notion that I could have a job like this shows us how far we have come in America. The fact that you had to ask the question shows us how far we have to go."
Chain Store Age, December 2004, p. 39.
Detroit News, October 19, 2004.
Houston Chronicle, October 19, 2004, p. 11.
International Herald Tribune, November 19, 2004, p. 19.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, October 19, 2004; November 21, 2004.
Seattle Times, November 18, 2004, p. E1.
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