Home Depot’s Frank Blake overshadows Nardelli’s ghost of meetings past

After three years, the ghost of Robert Nardelli still looms large at Home Depot.

At today’s annual meeting, shareholders never actually mentioned Nardelli by name.

Yet he was referred to by shareholders a half dozen times, mostly as a benchmark of what went wrong during his five years as CEO; and how the company has improved under the leadership of current CEO Frank Blake.

Nardelli, who has been running Chrysler Corp. for the past couple of years, was a controversial figure during his time running the Atlanta-based home improvement company.

The all-time low in Nardelli’s time as CEO was during the 2006 annual meeting in Wilmington, Del. when he was the only director present, not giving shareholders an opportunity to be heard by the other board members.

“Thank you for listening; that’s so important,” shareholder John Evans told Blake during the question and answer period. “We know that you were our gain out of the business world and Chrysler’s loss. And we won’t call any names on that.”

Applause from shareholders.

Later, shareholder Bernie Goldstein raised concern about whether the two Home Depot directors who are on the board of General Motors — Armando Codina and Karen Katin — able to focus on their duties for the company.

And then Goldstein said: “The previous person that held your position went on to Chrysler. Thank God I don’t have any Chrysler stock. But I do have a lot of Home Depot stock, and it didn’t do well under his tenure.”

Later in the meeting, shareholder Bill Haas talked about how he had “known Home Depot all its life” and respected the co-founders who built the company — Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank.

“Mr. Chrysler ruined it for five years,” Haas said.

A former regional vice president for the company, Eric Johnson, praised Home Depot executives for their accessibility and for doing a good job communicating with the stores, consumers and shareholders.

He said he has written several emails to Frank Blake and always received a response.

“The fact that you have this individual (Blake) respond to me, that’s astounding,” Johnson told his fellow shareholders. “Several years ago, with his predecessor, that never would have happened. The cultural values are coming back, and that’s so critical to the success of this business.”

After the meeting, I asked Blake about the ghostlike presence of Nardelli in the room. Smiling, he answered: “It’s interesting, isn’t it.”

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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