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Rosalind Brewer: Rising Star in Wal-Mart

4 min read

A science laboratory is not traditionally the most likely training ground for a star in the world of retail.

That setting, however, is exactly where Sam’s Club President and CEO Rosalind Brewer got her start.

Brewer began her professional life as an organic chemist with Kimberly-Clark Corp. It was a much different world than the one she currently inhabits, but Brewer credits her time in the lab as key in growing into one of the highest-profile positions in the world of retail.

“I liked to problem-solve and find solutions, so my analytical skills carried with me throughout my career with Kimberly-Clark and into my retail career,” Brewer said. “After 22 years … I was ready to put the lessons I’d learned and the skills I’d honed into practice in a new environment.”

Brewer’s path to Sam’s Club CEO is an unlikely one. She spent more than two decades at Kimberly-Clark, beginning as a scientist and eventually working her way into the position of president of the nonwoven fabrics business. During her time as vice president of that division, sales grew by more than 30 percent.

From there, Brewer, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta and of the Directors’ Consortium at the University of Chicago School of Business/Stanford School of Law, made her way to Wal-Mart. Her rise within the retail giant has been a relatively quick one and she is not shy about her plans for Sam’s Club, which generated $53 billion in revenue last year: Brewer wants to see Sam’s Club sales reach $80 billion to $100 billion.

Named one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune magazine in 2010 and 2011, Brewer has identified areas the company can improve in order to reach that goal.

Growing mobile and eCommerce business is “a big focus for us in the coming year.” Brewer said it is important to provide Sam’s Club members with opportunities to shop when and where they need to, even if that transaction takes place outside the store.

Sam’s Club will open 12 new stores this year, and there is a focus on identifying locations close to metropolitan areas for further expansion. Improving and expanding the products offered — Brewer points out the addition of Apple and Eddie Bauer merchandise — are also key to reaching the company’s goals.

“We will be aggressive this year about finding unique merchandise for our members,” Brewer said in response to emailed questions.

Brewer, known to friends and family as “Roz,” learned the importance of setting goals and having a strong work ethic early in life. She points to her mother and father as early influences. Rona Wells, who oversaw manufacturing and engineering while Brewer was at Kimberly-Clark, was also a key mentor.

Wells “was the first woman ever to lead this male-dominated organization,” Brewer said. “She took me under her wing and taught me many of the unwritten rules. We are still best of friends today.”

Today, Brewer works to pass the lessons she has learned on to others. She has been a key figure in the professional development of Karen Brewer-Edwards — no relation — who now serves as regional general manager for Wal-Mart in north Georgia.

Their relationship dates back to 2006, when Brewer joined Wal-Mart as a regional vice president and Brewer-Edwards worked as the region’s finance director. Ultimately, Brewer-Edwards made the transition from finance into operations, and she points to the mentor-mentee relationship with Brewer as being “invaluable.”

“Roz is a woman of influence because she is bold and will always share her point of view … even if it is not the most popular view,” Brewer-Edwards said.

That willingness to identify sometimes sensitive issues has served Brewer well. It aided her rise through Wal-Mart after spending 22 years with Kimberly-Clark Corp. After regional VP, Brewer was made executive vice president of Wal-Mart East, overseeing 1,600 stores in six regions that generated about $100 billion in annual revenue.

Quickly, her superiors noted Brewer’s ability to research, develop and implement strategies that helped the company succeed. Those skills she honed all those years ago in the lab ultimately led to her being named the first woman and first African-American to hold the CEO title within one of Wal-Mart’s business units.

Brewer’s influence isn’t limited to Sam’s Club. She currently serves on the board of directors for Lockheed Martin Corp. and she is the chairman of the Spelman College Board of Trustees.

“It’s humbling, and I have to give so much credit to the leaders, teachers and mentors I’ve had throughout life,” Brewer said.

(Return to Women of Influence)

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