Major corporations make major efforts

National retailers and financial services firms are in businesses where how a company looks is very important.

Published March 18, 2007

For years, Liz Harris was conspicuous as she climbed to the top of department store retailing. In the management ranks she often found herself alone.

"I was usually the only black person in the room or at the seminar," said Harris, whose career was zooming in the late 1980s. And when she hit the high point as Jordan Marsh's corporate vice president for selling services in Boston, her singularity as a black woman became even more pronounced.

But when she switched to Sears several years later, her diversity experience turned from disconcerting to heartening.

Harris, 57, said she did a double-take to make sure it wasn't an illusion when she encountered a sea of color and gender at management meetings at Sears headquarters outside Chicago.

"It was refreshing. They truly have a diverse organization up to the higher levels," said Harris, who is general manager of Sears at Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, where the career of the Panhandle native came full circle after her retailing start with Maas Brothers in 1973.

Harris is one of several bay area minority managers for nationwide firms whose executives hold diversity dear to the corporate heart just as tightly as they protect their statistics on inclusion as proprietary. Nonetheless, such local leaders of retailers as Sears, Neiman Marcus and JCPenney and financial services giant JPMorgan Chase embrace diversity at high levels in a realm where how a company looks counts.

While numbers might be one measure of how corporate America is faring in its quest for diversity, experts observing the dismantling of affirmative action and the rise of a diverse employee base say aggressively managing an inclusive work force is more important than mere representation.

Diversity management consultant and author Roosevelt Thomas Jr. emphasizes that point to corporations seeking help in navigating the diversity landscape.

"Most people don't talk about diversity management," he said. "They talk about doing diversity. I don't know what doing diversity means. But I do know something called diversity management. It is a craft that gives you the capability to make quality decisions in the midst of differences, similarities, tensions and complexities," said Thomas, who has written three books on diversity.

He thinks most companies are caught up in representation, busy making sure there's a certain workplace mix of race, gender and culture.

"You can tell they are aggressively pursuing representation by just looking at the best practices lists and those lists will relate to the numbers, how are we getting along, what kind of harmony do we have," he said. "I am not saying that's unimportant, but I am just saying that it goes beyond that."

Luke Visconti, whose business DiversityInc conducts an annual survey of corporations and publishes a Top 50 list, agrees. "Only about 20 percent of the large U.S. corporations are aggressively pursuing diversity management," he said.

For Visconti, three factors characterize aggressive diversity management. First, he said, "The CEO is personally involved, he reviews metrics, approves budget and ties executive bonuses to diversity." The second factor is "communication, not only to people inside the company and to the market, but listening as well." And third is "mentoring, plus supplier diversity and philanthropy."

Market dictates direction

Two Florida companies are on DiversityInc's Top 50 list for 2006. They are Darden Restaurants of Orlando and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, based in Jacksonville.

Cyrus Jollivette, Blue Cross Blue Shield's senior vice president for public affairs, is charmed by the national recognition, but thinks the company's inclusion mandate is driven by the Florida market's multiethnic nature.

"The composition of the marketplace dictates totally that we have to be culturally competent," said Jollivette, who came out of retirement to join the upper ranks of the company. "A business that is not culturally competent will not succeed but it is also the commitment from our senior leadership" that makes diversity meaningful, he said.

Going beyond work force

For Kim Ray, who runs the JPMorgan Chase international treasury operations in Tampa, diversity is more than merely a differentiation in the work force ranks. The financial services firm's 3,500 local employees handle electronic payments to the value of $3-trillion a day for retail customers, businesses and governments.

"There are 22 different languages that we speak here on the campus," she said. "In the countries we're in, we have to be able to communicate with those individuals and we have to know their culture so we don't step on their toes because everything isn't done with an American flair to it."

When it comes to style, few companies match the panache of Neiman Marcus, where most of its high-level executives are women. That fact was not lost on Detroit native Lydia Mattison when she joined the company in 2000 as a merchandise manager.

Last June, she came to Tampa as vice president and general manager of the store at International Plaza.

In her 25 years of retail selling, buying and management, she never thought much about diversity or whether race negatively or positively affected her rise, she said. "I never questioned whether I was going to get to my goal," she said. "It was never a matter of if I was going to get to it. It was about when it would happen."

Paul Jerome can be reached at jerome@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8355.