This 1999 business book by the founders of Home Depot was a very satisfying read in the sense that I’m always curious about the inner workings of those big-box stores. They seem like whole worlds, and like there must be good stories. And there certainly were. Moreover, I was educated about the meteoric rise of Home Depot, how it created the DIY market for home improvement and moved an industry from small-business to big-box, none of which I knew. Home Depot has been a fact for most of my life, so it was indeed very interesting to see how it all started.
Though of course in 2016 we’re more aware of what’s been destroyed by big-box stores than the founders of Home Depot would ever be willing to admit.
The book’s central claim is that the stores were so successful because they were focused on the consumer, and that the first step in pleasing the consumer is empowering the people who work in the stores to love their jobs. Every chapter talks about “our people” and the “associates” (the guys on the floor at Home Depot) being the most crucial element of the business. It sounds good, though I can’t help but notice the absence of specifics on what these people are paid, what their medical insurance is like, if they’re all still getting stock options, etc. It would be just like corporate bosses to demand “love of the job” theatrics in addition to the real work, without providing any additional compensation.
It’s sort of a shame to be reading the book more than 15 years after publication too, because the ownership structure of Home Depot has changed, the founders are no longer so involved, and I can’t say I’ve noticed the culture at my Brooklyn Home Depot as being any better than the culture at my Brooklyn Lowe’s. In fact, the Brooklyn Home Depot has a genuinely scary location under the highway next to a sanitation plant (much worse than Lowe’s scenic location next to the Gowanus Canal) and I’m not sure I’ve ever had a long and helpful conversation with an employee there, as is supposed to be the trademark of a Home Depot, according to this book. Lowe’s is cleaner and more friendly, the bathrooms are more conveniently located, and so on. Reading Built from Scratch makes me feel like I should be able to write to Bernie Marcus and he’ll address my concerns! But alas, times have changed.
And of course, that’s really the big-box story. I’m sure Home Depot was visionary and interesting when it started, and it may have been fun to work at when it was run by its founders, but all those places tend to drift into soulless bureaucracy and poor service, and Home Depot has been no exception. Two employees chatting idly with each other at the one in Burlington, Vermont, recently scolded my children for running in the store, which they claimed was dangerous, while my husband and I were there trying to pick a carpet. They were running in the carpet section, where everything is soft. It was not dangerous. The section was deserted, the children were not bothering anyone. Or they weren’t until my husband and I had to insist that they stop playing and stand there with us while we picked the carpet. Which, at that point, they were bothering us. Consumer friendly? No. Bureaucratic and stupid? Yes.
I also by the end of the book found the founders self-congratulatory and smug, and I began to doubt their claims that even in their heyday they were such great managers. They pride themselves on limiting bureaucracy, but then roll out several chapters on the joys of corporate spirit-building nonsense, which I’ve never known any human being to actually like. There is a particularly repugnant section about a Utah camping trip where everyone nearly froze to death but rah-rah, they did it to prove their devotion to Home Depot! Wouldn’t you just love your boss if that happened?
Marcus and Blank also extoll the virtues of 360 feedback, which I’ve had the joys of participating in personally, and which totally sucks. This is when the people you work with, peers, superiors and underlings, anonymously “rate” you. In my experience 360-feedback hurt everyone’s feelings and created a horrible workplace environment full of suspicion, theories about who gave the bad ratings, lying, back-biting, brokered deals for mutually good-ratings, etc. I did not see it improve anyone’s job performance. I did see it waste a ton of time that could be spent, yes, working.
By the end I was enjoying the book more as an accidental expose on “the horrors of large corporations.” But that was fun, too.