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Carol Tomé on becoming CEO of UPS: ‘This was my calling’

Maria Saporta
UPS CEO Carol Tomé in the lobby of UPS' headquarters (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

Nearly a year ago, Carol Tomé was named as the next CEO of UPS – making her the highest-ranking woman business leader in Georgia when she started her job June 1.

As of now, Tomé is the only woman running a Fortune 500 company in Georgia. She is the first woman to run UPS in its 113-year history. And she’s the first “outsider” to be named CEO.

“It didn’t really hit me until last week, which is odd because I’ve been in the role for a while,” Tomé. Her mother, who passed away in September, would have turned 90 a couple of weeks ago. For the occasion, Tomé’s sister sent her a photo book with a picture she had never seen before.

Carol Tomé as a baby being held by her grandmother as her great-grandmother and her mother dote on her (Special)

“It’s a picture of four generations – my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and me, and I’m a baby,” Tomé said. “My great grandmother traveled in a wagon train was a homesteader in Wyoming. My grandmother’s husband died when my mother was born. She worked every single day until she died. She walked to work in high heels. She never owned a car. She never owned a home. My mother was a homemaker, who was divorced after 27 years of marriage, took her divorce proceeds invested them wisely. She had never had a checkbook. When she passed away, she left a multi-million-dollar estate for her children and grandchildren.

“And now I’m running UPS, one of the largest companies in the world,” Tomé said. ”I just busted out crying because holy crap. Sometimes we think we haven’t come very far and (yet) we’ve come so far.”

Tomé’s journey to UPS was not something she had planned. She had retired in 2019 as the chief financial officer of the Home Depot after 24 years with the company. She had been passed over for the top job in 2014, but she stayed with the company to support CEO Craig Menear.

“It was such the right time for me to leave Home Depot,” Tomé said in a sit-down, one-hour interview at the company’s headquarters in Sandy Springs. “I was at peace. I’m like this is going to be great. I’m going to do corporate boards, my foundation, my family office, the farm and spend more time with my family and friends.”

Coincidentally, Tomé had served on the board of UPS since 2003, and the company hired a search firm to work on succession planning and develop a persona for the best person to succeed Dave Abney, who had been with the company for 46 years.

“There was no one who fit the persona,” Tomé said. She was approached to ask if she would like to be considered for the role. “Me? We talked about, I said: ‘Am I too old?’” asked Tomé, who is now 64. “They said: ‘No, we don’t think age is an issue here.’”

Carol Tomé in the lobby of UPS’ headquarters overlooking the building’s atrium – in a forest-like setting (Photo by Maria Saporta)

The job was intriguing. She would work with a values-based company; UPS is a good corporate citizen; and she thought she could change the business model to unleash revenue and profits.

“You know I like to make money,” Tomé said. “I have a pretty good track record at it. I thought I could really move the needle here, and that would be fun.”

She also relished the opportunity to develop people – UPS has 540,000 full- and part-time employees – and she wanted to help them “reach their highest potential.”

And to be honest, she was not happy being retired. “I was seriously bored,” said Tomé, who added she was driving her husband crazy by being around all day.

“I think this was my calling,” Tomé said. “I think I’ve been called back.”

But she was afraid – not just because the business challenges – but because of all the glass she had broken when she was named CEO.

“I was so worried as the first outsider coming in,” Tomé said. “If the people rejected me, I was going to be toast. That was my biggest fear. And that didn’t happen at all. It was crazy how receptive people were. It was fantastic.”

In the nine months as CEO, Tomé has reorganized the management structure from 21 committees to nimble review boards.

“We didn’t have the luxury of time because the world around us is changing so fast,” said Tomé, who said that was one of the lessons she learned at Home Depot. In fact, Tomé openly admits to copying several of Home Depot’s practices – including the inverted pyramid where executives are the least important while customers and front-line workers are the most important.

UPS also boiled down its purpose to a single phrase: “Moving our world forward by delivering what matters.”

Some of the changes Tomé has instituted. Jobs are now posted internally so anyone can apply for a position. Before, UPS “really honored seniority over talent,” Tomé said. “It’s really creating an opportunity for everyone.”

And Tomé has elevated the importance of diversity and inclusion, where UPS already excelled. The company relaxed it policy regarding facial hair and Black hairstyles to make all races feel more welcome.

It named Charlene Thomas as its chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, who now reports directly to Tomé. It added five new board members – three women (one who is Asian) and two Black men.

UPS also is about roll out a new slogan: You belong at UPS. “How inclusive is that?” Tomé said proudly.

UPS CEO Carol Tomé in the lobby of UPS’ headquarters (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Tomé said the company will release its EEO1 data on the diversity of its workforce, which shareholders had been asking the company to do for years.

“There’s absolutely no reason not to share,” Tomé said. “We will put some commentary around the data,” to better tell the story of UPS diversity.

So far, UPS employees are responding well to Tomé’s initiatives.

One metric Tomé tracks is the likelihood of UPS employees to recommend working at the company. That has moved from 51 percent when she arrived to 64 percent.

“That gives me joy,” Tomé said, adding the company has had record profits, a strong stock price, more employee bonuses and improved customer experiences. “All that really makes me happy. The fun part hasn’t quite come yet.”

When it was announced Tomé would be the next CEO on March 12, 2020, she met with employees in the lunch room, partly oblivious to the COVID pandemic that was going to turn the world upside down less than a week later.

I thought I’d be traveling the world meeting people, visiting our facilities, shaking hands and meeting customers,” Tomé said But she embraced the challenge (she works on puzzles to calm her down). “We’ve got lots of challenges here, but they’re fun to work on. We’re making some real good progress.”

Asked if she is still bothered by not getting the top job at Home Depot, Tomé said: “I am so beyond that.” And she spoke highly of Home Depot CEO Menear, who she said is doing a “fantastic” job. “I’m just trying to do a really good job here.”

So is she having fun?

“I don’t know if this is a fun job actually,” Tomé said. “I have to keep it real. it’s a cool job. But it’s a heavy job.”

Tomé also is making sure people know UPS is an Atlanta company. She has decided to move the company’s annual meeting from Wilmington, Delaware, where it’s been for decades, to Atlanta, even though it could just be virtual this year.

“We’re done with Wilmington.,” Tomé said. “There’s absolutely no reason to have our annual meetings in Delaware.  “We’re in Atlanta.”

Carol Tomé in the lobby of UPS’ headquarters in front of one of the many vehicles the company uses to deliver packages (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Other priorities of the company include the planet and climate change. UPS drivers travel 2 billion miles a year, and it flies hundreds of flights every day  to destinations around the world.

“We’re consuming a lot of carbon,” Tomé said. “We have carbon reduction goals, but we’re going to reset those. I don’t think they’re bold enough.”

Philanthropically, the UPS Foundation will focus on four areas: health and humanitarian causes; economic empowerment, local engagement and the planet.

Tomé, a lover of the arts, said “local engagement is our way of cheating into the arts.” Also, the foundation started by Tomé and her husband, includes funding for the arts and other important civic causes.

The endowed foundation “could live for a long time” because they don’t have any children, and they’ve provided for all close family members.

“We really believe we’ve been given a lot,” Tomé said. “It’s our obligation to give it back.”

They also have bought a farm in Chickamauga, in the northwest corner of the state, where she has Wi Fi – even in the barn.

But Tomé knows she has a job to do at UPS – the most important one being to nurture her successor.

“If they can pick from the inside, wouldn’t that be fantastic?” asked Tomé rhetorically without saying how long she will remain CEO. “I’m in the job as long as it takes to get the job done. I serve at the pleasure of the board, obviously. and they have a lot of say on whether I am getting the job done right. But my job is to get CEO succession candidates ready.”

Note to readers: This column is part of a regular series to introduce you to key metro Atlanta leaders.

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Brenda Reid March 9, 2021 12:01 pm

    Conratulations to Carol for this great milestone in her life. You can’t keep a good woman down! Thank you Maria for this excelent story and for devoting so much space to lifting her up and tellling us about her journey. Atlanta is proud of her and wish her nothing but success!!!Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Rob H. March 9, 2021 1:17 pm

    I have been a UPS employee for over 29 years and been in management for the better part of that time. I have watched multiple CEO’s come and go, new board members, several bosses and an IPO. I have also spent 21+ years in the military, where I learned a great deal from some fabulous mentors. I have had the opportunity to travel the world (some places I wasn’t to fond of) with both UPS and the military, and am proud to say I have belonged to both organizations. I have to admit I was skeptical when UPS announced a CEO who wasn’t a UPSer (or as we say, Bled Brown). It was a surprise to all of us as no one in the trenches saw that one coming. However, Carol has tackled some tough tasks and has broadcasted a true sense of pride in her tenure as CEO. She has made no qualms about putting things into perspective and making sure all employees know that the culture moving forward is about the UPSer’s and the customer. Other CEO’s have said some of the same things, but none have backed it up with action that clearly demonstrates her goals, words and actions. While none of us know what the future has in store for us, I feel confident in saying that the future of UPS and at UPS is brighter with Carol at the helm. She has brought about a newfound vigor and pride at UPS that honestly had been missing for a long time. Thank you Carol, for recognizing the accomplishments of the UPS employee and rewarding us for all of the long hours, missed holidays/birthdays and sacrifices throughout the years. If you continue on the path you are on now UPS has a very bright future!Report

    Reply
    1. Avatar
      Jessie L. March 18, 2021 9:29 am

      Absolutely right and agree with you, Rob. I finally see real changes in our company and it is making me so happy! I hope Carol is able to do everything what she wants. I am very exciting since last year seeing a woman in the head, and also and more important, a sensitive, clever and strong women. Regards from Chile!Report

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Joseph B March 9, 2021 2:24 pm

    You are going to destroy everything ups was built on.you can’t just keep the profitable shippers and drop the rest.talk to people who have been there for years.you came in as an outsider.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Armend Zhjeqi March 9, 2021 7:17 pm

    Why ups it’s not let you to work with F class I apply more than 5 timesReport

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Rick March 10, 2021 8:18 am

    You forgot to mention the 14500 UPS Freight employees she cut, UPS couldn’t manage a hot dog cart without screwing it up. Hopefully the truth will come out that UPS drivers are harassed by management constantly, safety is just words to memorize not practiced, and their only concern is the shareholders, as employees and their family are not as important.Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Alicee Cade March 10, 2021 9:10 am

    I enjoyed your article and feel women have come far. I just don’t understand why few women are ok to work seasonal, doing the same work as others (drivers), but are not ok to be permanent. I enjoyed what I was doing, showed up early and was there everyday. I was told I had to deliver 200 stops before 5pm, yet the regular workers state they don’t do that. The company gave me a different outlook about the job, especially since I enjoyed the job. I guess I’m only good enough to be seasonal. Franklin Park, ILReport

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    K March 10, 2021 6:29 pm

    Yeah she’s a selfish shareholder supporter.. glorified figure and pampered with comments.Report

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    IJK March 12, 2021 2:12 pm

    Ivory tower.Report

    Reply

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