When Rosalind Brewer, then the CEO of Sam’s Club, called out the lack of diversity in American corporations in a 2015 interview, she received death th
When Rosalind Brewer, then the CEO of Sam’s Club, called out the lack of diversity in American corporations in a 2015 interview, she received death threats and a torrent of criticism.
Walgreens, WBA 3.99% the largest U.S. drugstore chain by sales, said Tuesday that Ms. Brewer, who goes by Roz, will succeed Stefano Pessina, who will stay on the company’s board and serve as its executive chairman.
Mr. Pessina said Ms. Brewer, 58, became a CEO candidate through a search run by an outside firm, and that he and Ms. Brewer talked one-on-one several times in recent weeks.
“What I see in her is leadership,” said Mr. Pessina, who has run Walgreens since mid-2015. “Initially you have to trust your gut feeling and my gut feeling was good. I liked her, otherwise we probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Ms. Brewer takes over at a pivotal time for Walgreens. Retail drugstores have been major providers of coronavirus testing and are set to take an even bigger role in vaccinating the American public. A successful vaccination program would boost Walgreens as it struggles to turn itself around in the face of competition from online retailers, including Amazon.com Inc.
Mr. Pessina said Ms. Brewer’s experience managing Starbucks through the coronavirus pandemic and growing the company’s digital presence through its mobile-ordering app equip her to run the pharmacy chain, along with her time running Sam’s Club, which also operates pharmacies.
Ms. Brewer was the first woman and is still the only Black executive to ever hold a CEO role at Walmart, Sam’s Club’s parent. She has said that during her time at the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer she sometimes faced criticism for giving priority to diversity within the company.
In a December 2015 interview on CNN, Ms. Brewer described a meeting with a supplier. “The entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males,” she said. “That was interesting.”
Ms. Brewer said she demanded a commitment to diverse hiring on her team and used her platform to nudge Sam’s Club suppliers to do the same.
The comments spurred a stream of critical social media posts and letters to Walmart.
“I received death threats. My children’s lives were threatened. My resignation was called for by people that didn’t know me,” Ms. Brewer said in a 2018 commencement address to Spelman College, her alma mater. “And here’s what I’d said that triggered such strong emotions. I said, ‘Diversity makes good business sense.’ How dare I?”
Soon after the interview Walmart CEO Doug McMillon issued a statement: “Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business.”
Ms. Brewer, a native of Detroit whose parents both worked for General Motors Co. , belonged to the first generation in her family to attend college. She studied organic chemistry at Spelman and spent years as a scientist at Kimberly-Clark Corp. before moving into management. She took business and management courses at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School but doesn’t hold an MBA.
“In many cases I’ve had to teach myself a lot of things,” said Ms. Brewer in a May interview with retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and author Chris Fussell of the McChrystal Group consulting firm.
She has learned to rely on mentors, including former PepsiCo Inc. CEO Indra Nooyi and ex-Walmart U.S. Chief Bill Simon.
Ms. Brewer has “this innate ability to be likable,” Mr. Simon said in an interview. “She uses her approachability to disarm people,” and take on big challenges or difficult conversations directly, said Mr. Simon, who was Ms. Brewer’s boss during some of her time at Walmart.
Ms. Brewer didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
At Starbucks, Ms. Brewer oversaw the company’s beverage development and push into cold coffee, a trend competitors have since adopted given increasing sales. Investors credit Ms. Brewer with making its store operations more efficient.
Ms. Brewer said she was proud of the difficult decisions Starbucks took during the pandemic, including closing hundreds of North American stores and paying retail workers early on in the crisis even if they didn’t work.
The pandemic forced Ms. Brewer to reassess her priorities, she said. With an adult son back in the house and a teenage daughter at home, Ms. Brewer said she further focused on her family. She worked out more, tried to get sleep, and has been meditating daily.
“We’ll be a different society after this is over,” she said about the pandemic. “You have to find the good in every crisis.”
Ms. Brewer was seen by many investors as a possible future CEO at Starbucks. She played a prominent role in speaking to investors, its board and the company’s retail employees. After the pandemic hit, Ms. Brewer said she would stop into Starbucks stores and speak to retail employees about what was on their minds beyond their jobs.
“It’s a relief and it starts relationship building. That’s when inclusion happens,” Ms. Brewer said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in the fall about its diversity commitments and training.
When she left Walmart in 2017 after five years running Sam’s Club, Ms. Brewer signed an exit agreement that prohibited her from working for another global retail company with revenue of more than $5 billion for two years, according to a financial filing, a clause typical of Walmart executive employment contracts.
The week her noncompete ended in 2019, Ms. Brewer joined the board of Amazon, Walmart’s biggest rival.
—Dana Mattioli contributed to this article.
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