John Sommers: On testing and learning

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His job description is strikingly simple for an executive with a global corporation. “If it has to do with flooring, it falls within my area of responsibility,” says John Sommers 06EMBA, merchandising vice president at The Home Depot. “We are the number-one provider of carpet, wool, vinyl, and tile in the world.” But staying number one requires new strategies,as Sommers recently explained to Emory Business (EB).

Sommers: I’ve been with The Home Depot since 1994, and my current responsibilities include the strategic development, implementation, and oversight of product, price, and promotion specific to flooring, as well as in-store placement strategies. What we are seeing in the marketplace now is declining interest in DIY projects.  The baby boomers are aging and less physically inclined, and the younger generations are very busy, more interested in simple decor and possess fewer DIY skills. Our business model is moving toward providing simple decor projects requiring minimal investments of time while appealing more to the contractors who Do It For Them.

EB: What strategies have proven helpful in leading from the front?

Sommers: It’s important to drive an agenda that will create a compelling competitive advantage in the marketplace.  My advice is to review the current paradigm of your business model and explore opportunity costs with an extremely critical eye.

EB: How do you plan for the times when your product is no longer the strategic leader in a particular category?

Sommers: Constant and diligent attention to product life cycles.

EB: When your strategy is dependent on external factors, how can you shield it against the unexpected?

Sommers: Our model is not immune to new construction downturn; its strength, however, is built in homeowners’ desire to invest in their home and property.

EB: Have you ever had to abandon a strategy, and if so, what did you learn from it?

Sommers: We test and learn all the time. Strategies we have abandoned include a number of businesses purchased in the early 2000s. We learned from these to refocus on our core business. In China we recently revised our strategy based on improved knowledge of that market. We have not abandoned our desire to serve this growing market and will continue to test concepts that will enable us to reach China’s large customer base.

EB: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Sommers: I enjoy creating memorable experiences with my wife and two sons. We have a common appreciation for music, motorcycles, snowboarding, and sailing. I also coach youth and high school lacrosse here in Atlanta. I helped initiate the first lacrosse team at Marquette University when I was an undergrad. This year, the team is playing its first Division I Schedule.

-Susan Merrit Jordan

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