Susan O’Farrell | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
By Robert Green
The term American exceptionalism is generally understood to mean all that is great or exceptional about the United States as a whole. But sometimes it can be appropriately used to refer to an American who is in many ways exceptional. This second reference certainly applies to Susan O’Farrell, the engaging Chief Procurement Officer of The Home Depot, whose life and career have been dedicated to boldly challenging accepted norms.
Born in New Zealand, O’Farrell was not an American by birth. Her father, a pediatrician, very much wanted to work in the specialized field of pediatric neurology but circumstances in New Zealand – the sparse population, socialized medicine – conspired to dictate a general pediatric role. O’Farrell’s father then made a decision that would change the family’s lives forever – to pursue the American Dream. “He and my mother sold everything we had – everything – to by plane tickets for the family to San Francisco,” she says, “when we landed in the US, Mom and Dad bought a Ford Falcon station wagon and we drove cross country to Baltimore.” O’Farrell’s parents and fellow siblings – aged four to eleven – were headed to Johns Hopkins where her father was “pretty sure” he had a job waiting. One has to wonder if this early dose of dramatic change – O’Farrell was four – is part of the reason she is so comfortable with change management and so ready to deal directly with important business issues.
O’Farrell’s family lived in Baltimore for a year – there was a job for her father – then moved to Miami where he worked permanently at a sister institution, Lindsey Hopkins. Her mother worked full-time as a nurse and O’Farrell would be constantly busy with school – which she loved – and other activities. “I liked school so much that I took classes every summer,” but also did speed swimming and went to the Junior Olympics in her first sport of synchronized swimming. “I had a lot of blessings and I know it,” says O’Farrell. “I’m a competitive person and I was lucky to be in a family where drive and ambition were nurtured and respected.”
She became an American citizen on July 4 th of 1976, a date that O’Farrell will never forget. “Citizenship is a privilege I take seriously,” she says, “I always vote – it drives me crazy that some people don’t bother.”
Most of O’Farrell’s siblings would follow her parents into medicine or a medical-related field, but a very positive high school experience with Junior Achievement made O’Farrell more interested in business. Armed with all the elements that she was interested in from a college business course, her research directed her to Auburn where she graduated in two and a half years and paid for it herself. “Back then, you reached a point where you could add course hours for free – anything over 18 hours was no charge – so I loaded up 24 hours every quarter and went year round.” Incredibly, she also managed to make time for campus life and enjoy football games. She was president of the Finance Club. “I was a study hard, play hard kind of girl.” Her expectation was that she would use the remaining year to 18 months of the usual four-year college experience to add a graduate degree to her business and finance major. An unexpected offer from Andersen Consulting in Atlanta changed her mind. The exceptional O’Farrell was barely 20-years-old.
O’Farrell says that she learned a lot from her time at Andersen. Though young, she worked in a lot of different industries and companies including IBM, The Cleveland Clinic, Hayes, Ivan Allen, Delta and Southern Company. “I saw a lot of different leadership styles and company cultures,” she said, “and learned that nothing is definitive. What works in one company might not work in another although from a strictly business point of view, one style was as valid as another.” Starting as a technology consultant for financial systems, she quickly moved to the newly formed change management group. She was intrigued by the fact that when a company needed to change for business reasons that some employees could do it and others could not. Why? “I wanted to help the people in the organization change to make the company more successful,” she says.
When working with Delta – Andersen had been brought in to change financial systems – O’Farrell found that no one outside of Atlanta had any budget authority. Everything was done from Atlanta. Any capital expenditure of more that $500 had to go to Atlanta for approval - which slowed work considerably and added to a sense of employee powerlessness. “You have to empower people to change and reward the ones who do,” she says. O’Farrell made partner at Andersen and stayed with them for 13 years. “Human organizational change was my specialty but it’s really every leader’s job. How to get the maximum performance out of people.”
O’Farrell left Andersen to do special projects for the newly deregulated Atlanta Gas Light Company – working on change management, of course – and was greatly enjoying the challenges of her new position. “I was not even remotely interested in moving,” she says, “when I kept getting calls from a headhunter, I simply ignored them,” she says. Finally – probably in frustration – the headhunter left another message, this time identifying his client as Home Depot. “I called back,” she said. “I was happy working for a great company but I was interested in learning about an even greater company.”
“Home Depot is indeed a very special company, and I have certainly enjoyed working here, but it’s not for everyone,” says O’Farrell. “The customers come first, then store associates who interact with the customer come next, then lastly comes the company leadership. Not everybody can get aligned with that type of thinking. If you don’t have the attitude of ‘how can I help sell a hammer today’ you’re probably better off somewhere else.” Indeed, on entering The Home Depot Store Support Center, where O’Farrell works, one of the first thing visitors see is a large inverted pyramid with customers at the top in a broad base and the CEO at the bottom of an upside down point. “We take that seriously,” she says. To show the company’s commitment to servant leadership, CEO Frank Blake instituted the Officer in the Stores program that has every company officer, including O’Farrell, working in a store one day per week for one quarter of each year. “We do real work,” say O’Farrell, “and isn’t just a photo op. O’Farrell became certified to mix paint expertly and can whip up a batch of whatever color you want. Her store service time is certainly productive.
One in-store day, O’Farrell was asked to dry out old paint tinting containers destined for disposal. They had to be absolutely dry, she was told. After several rounds of trying to dry the containers – and stopping again and again to help customers, then back to the containers – she began to wonder why they had to be as dry as the Mojave Desert. It turned out that a directive had come down because a California law required fastidious disposal and it was thought that it would be difficult to have different rules just for California. “I said, do you mean to tell me that associates in paint departments of more than 1,800 stores outside of California are doing this for no reason?” Separate rules were made for California and associates in 49 other states have a little easier time, now,” says O’Farrell. “That was a good lesson in how mindful we have to be in our decisions and how servant leadership works.”
As the Chief Procurement Officer at The Home Depot, O’Farrell is responsible for all indirect spend and her team sources more than $6 billion per year. She leads a diverse group responsible for Procurement, Supplier Diversity, Corporate Aviation and Property Management. She and her team are preoccupied with three things: cost, quality and timeliness. “We aren’t just interested in ‘cheap,’” she says, but focus on value for the internal customer. She has also seen how The Home Depot has changed the lives of small company suppliers upon selection as a company vendor. “It’s gratifying,” she says, “and I enjoy seeing others achieve the American Dream. O’Farrell is also in charge of The Home Depot’s supplier diversity program, which has seen purchases from minority, women-owned and small business go up more than 50 percent. “The company is committed to getting innovative products to our customers and we are convinced that these will come from small suppliers,” she says.
O’Farrell’s experience managing people in business has taught her some useful lessons that might be of use to other managers. “First, talent assessment is key,” she says. “The most important part of people management is hiring the right person in the first place. I look for people who thrive on change and can adapt quickly. Second, if the person isn’t as successful as you thought they would be, can they be coached into change or is there another role where they can be successful? Third, if the answer is no, then you have to face the possibility of parting ways. Don’t let things simmer – every termination decision I’ve ever made I probably should have made sooner,” she says. “If your talent assessment is good and you have good coaching skills you probably won’t have to take the third, drastic step, very often.”
The breadth of O’Farrell’s job is gratifying to someone who has always loved to work hard and play hard. But her greatest job satisfaction comes from seeing other team members succeed. “When you get the right people in the right spot - beautiful things can happen,” she says.
O’Farrell served as Board Chair for the Atlanta Children’s Shelter and is currently on the CHRIS Kids Community Advisory Board as well as The Junior League of Atlanta Advisory Board. She is an alumnus of Leadership Atlanta and has previously served on the Prevent Child Abuse Georgia Board as well as Auburn College of Business Advisory Council. In 2008, she was named one of Atlanta’s 25 “WOW Women to Watch,” and in 2012 was named Business to Business Magazine Women of Excellence.
O’Farrell and her husband have three beautiful children – 4-year-old twins (boy and girl) and a 2-year-old girl. She definitely believes that she has achieved the American Dream.
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