Marvin Davis talks about the importance of corporate diversity

Memphis Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS – Black representation has been almost zero at the top of Memphis’ largest public companies since 2015.

FedEx, International Paper, AutoZone, ServiceMaster and First Horizon combined for only one top executive who is Black from 2015 to 2019, a Commercial Appeal analysis found.

That happened in 2018, when ServiceMaster listed Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Marvin Davis as one of its five most highly compensated officers.

The analysis is based on each company’s Named Executive Officers (NEOs) listed in their respective annual proxy statements. NEOs generally include a company’s CEO, CFO and the three most highly compensated executive officers outside those two positions. Any officers listed as retired or departed in these statements were not included in The Commercial Appeal’s analysis.


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“This is sort of an illustration of what we’re seeing on a larger scale,” Enrica Ruggs, director of the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Memphis, said of the findings.

None of the NEOs listed in the companies’ 2020 filings are Black, either.

This doesn’t include AutoZone, which hasn’t filed this year’s proxy statement yet. Last month, AutoZone announced Jamere Jackson, who is Black, will join the company as chief financial officer-elect.


Companies across the country have been speaking out against racism, but less than 2% of top executives at 50 largest companies are Black.


These companies say they are committed to diversity and inclusion, with some citing their own data showing a more diverse company beyond these top executive officers. Earlier this year, diversity officials at FedEx, International Paper and First Horizon spoke to The Commercial Appeal about their companies’ approaches to inclusion.

At FedEx, 37% of U.S. management employees are minorities and the company is “assessing where there are opportunities for us to do even more,” it said in a statement.

“Recent actions have included holding listening forums where senior leadership heard directly from FedEx team members on issues of race and equality, providing managers with resources to talk with their teams about diversity and inclusion, and taking a fresh look at our business practices to find more ways to maximize our diversity efforts through sourcing suppliers, hiring, training and philanthropy,” the company said.

But Davis, now owner of Memphis’ Fred L. Davis Insurance Agency, said the lack of Black executives at the top of Memphis’ major companies is “shocking.”

“I can’t attribute it to anything other than a lack of concerted effort to address it,” he said. “There are many qualified candidates nationwide who I’m sure would be willing to move to Memphis.”

Sparse Black representation among executives is not a problem exclusive to Memphis. USA TODAY reported in August that less than 2% of top executives at the S&P 100’s 50 largest companies are Black.

Yet many of these companies aren’t headquartered in cities with a Black population as large as Memphis’. The majority of Memphis’ population is Black, at 64.2%, according to 2019 Census population estimates.

“There are other cities that struggle to get Black executives, because those executives don’t want to live in those communities because of a lack of diversity,” Davis said. “But when you have a diverse community such as Memphis, a company’s leadership team and employees ought to be reflective of that.”

Diversity touted, but ‘less and less diverse’ up top

FedEx, AutoZone, International Paper, First Horizon and ServiceMaster are the five largest Memphis-based public companies by employee count. They all emphasize diversity as a priority.

A First Horizon spokeswoman said more than 20% of its executives are ethnically diverse. In a statement, CEO Bryan Jordan said the company is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels of the company.”

“Our ability to attract, retain and promote a diverse and talented workforce is a priority for the leadership of this company and our Board,” he said. “Our ability to excel, as a company and as an employer of choice, is rooted in this commitment, and we believe that a diverse, talented workforce enables us to best serve the communities we serve.”

At AutoZone, 57% of its workforce and 44% of management is ethnically diverse, according to its 2019 Corporate Social Responsibility report. Including Jackson, the CFO-elect, AutoZone’s Executive Committee has three Black members out of 14 total, a company spokesman said.


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Ruggs, who is also an assistant professor of management, said organizations continue to structure themselves in ways that don’t allow minorities and women to advance to highly rewarded or valued positions, such as a Named Executive Officer. Many remain comfortable with the status quo, impeding progress, she said.

“We might see lots of diversity in 2020 at entry-level positions and feel we’re doing a good job,” she said. “As we move up in the ranks, it becomes less and less diverse.”

ServiceMaster named Aster Angagaw, who is Black, president of ServiceMaster Brands in May 2019, a position that previously been among Named Executive Officers. However, ServiceMaster plans to sell off ServiceMaster Brands and rename itself Terminix.

ServiceMaster did not respond to a request for comment on The Commercial Appeal’s findings. The company’s diversity statement on its website says it is “committed to fostering a culture where all employees are treated with respect and given an opportunity to contribute to our success.”

“We encourage our employees to use their diversity of thought, experience, background and perspectives to instill trust and drive empowerment with each other, our franchisees and suppliers, and more importantly, our valued customers,” the statement says.

Davis left the company after Nik Varty replaced Rob Gillette as CEO. The leadership change led to a corporate strategy and culture different than the one he signed on for under Gillette, Davis said.

Both a business and moral case

Davis, who has also held high-ranking positions at LifeLock, Comcast and Verizon Wireless, said companies with inclusive cultures believe diversity will make their businesses better. Diversity shouldn’t live exclusively in human resources and public relations departments or be discussed only at town halls outside normal day-to-day operations, he said.

“If people find that is taking away from their jobs instead of being part of their jobs, it will never succeed,” he said.

Diversity and inclusion must be included in strategic company goals, with built-in measures and indicators to measure progress over time, Ruggs said. Companies coming up short should consider if their recruitment, selection or development of talent needs a change.

International Paper’s “Vision 2030” commitment includes having 25% of U.S. salaried positions made up of minorities.

“We have robust diversity and gender representation goals, which are critical to ensuring we achieve our vision of being among the most successful, sustainable and responsible companies in the world,” the company said in a statement. “Our Vision 2030 goals ensure diversity and inclusion continues to be a key part of our sustainability strategy over the next decade.”

A culture of sameness limits the type of innovative thinking that propels growth, Davis said.

A 2018 McKinsey study found a “statistically significant correlation” between more diverse leadership and better financial results. Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic and cultural executive diversity “were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability,” the study says. Companies in the bottom quartile were less likely to have above-average profitability.

Beyond the business case for diversity, it’s also good moral sense, Ruggs said. Numerous companies released statements this year underlining their commitment to racial justice and diversity after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests it sparked. But Ruggs said “true movement” will happen once companies approach diversity proactively instead of reactively.

“(Systemic racism) is not going to be cured overnight,” she said. “It’s something that has been built up over 400 years in this country. It’s going to take time to get to a place of equity and equality.”

Max Garland covers FedEx, logistics and health care for The Commercial Appeal. Reach him at [email protected] or 901-529-2651 and on Twitter @MaxGarlandTypes.

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