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