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Agent of Change

Home Depot's Dennis Donovan says that "nobody believed that we could implement this amount of change is such a short period of time."

May 29, 2004
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Recruitment, Staffing Management

R ecalling his early days in the spring of 2001 as executive vice president of human resources at Home Depot Inc., Dennis Donovan says he felt a sense of homecoming.

    As the son of a hardware store owner in Gardner, Massachusetts, he had, in a way, come full circle. Even today, his now retired 85-year-old father, Frank Donovan, still provides him with professional expertise.

    "He goes in our stores and gives me the scoop on how we’re doing," Donovan says. "He knows this business cold."

    Though Donovan himself knows a thing or two about home improvement, it’s human resources where he’s proved himself to be one of the sharpest tools in the shed.

    Among the nation’s 10 highest-paid human resources leaders, he’s No. 2, pulling in more than $5.4 million in total compensation, according to Workforce Management’s 2004 list of the 10 Highest-Paid Human Resources Executives.

    "When people ask what I do, I say, ‘I change things,’ " Donovan notes with typical understatement. "Every time I start a new job, it’s to put in the infrastructure so the organization can change effectively."

    Donovan’s manner and casual dress are low-key, but there’s nothing laid-back about the way the 55-year-old executive works.

    "When I came here and started outlining what we were going to do, I think people thought I was crazy," he says. "Nobody believed that we could implement this amount of change in such a short period of time."

    His immediate challenge was to place a human resources person in every store. The cost to the company was a penny a share, but Donovan garnered support for the initiative and filled 1,300 human resources slots in 12 weeks.

    He’s a big believer in the power of momentum. "Velocity," he says, "is our friend in the game of change."

    Donovan’s résumé includes stints as senior vice president of human resources at Raytheon Co. and chief of human resources for the power systems business at General Electric Co., where he formed a close relationship with Home Depot CEO Bob Nardelli.

    "I can definitely say I came to Home Depot because of Bob Nardelli," he says.

    Donovan, a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources and a member of its board of directors, earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations in 1971 and an MBA in 1972 from the University of Massachusetts. While working for General Electric, he also earned a law degree in 1979 from Western New England College School of Law.

    Donovan says he’s been fascinated with human resources since he worked at a furniture factory as a high school student.

    "I saw people working incredibly hard and not being treated that well, and I just got so interested in the employment relationships and how important work was in people’s lives," he says. "I saw some people who were lousy leaders--and I worked for one--and you’d find yourself sitting there hoping they’d fail rather than working hard to help them to succeed.

    "Then there were others who were terrific leaders, and I watched how they got their people behind them."

    For a man who has plenty of experience in restructuring and downsizing, he says that the responsibility of adding about 100,000 new jobs in the past few years has been a distinct pleasure.

    "I absolutely have a lot more fun growing a business than restructuring or consolidating one," he says.

Workforce Management, January 2005, p. 29 -- Subscribe Now!

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