Ellison became CEO of Lowe's in 2018. There, he makes a base annual salary of $1.45 million with $6 million worth of restricted stock options, according to the Charlotte Business Journal. But as a college student, he started out with a part-time security gig at Target, which only paid $4.35 an hour.
Ellison grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee, with his parents and six siblings. Ellison told the Dallas Morning News that as a middle child, he was a "a born peacekeeper."
Speaking to the audience at the National Retail Federation's 2019 Big Show, the Lowe's CEO said that growing up in rural Tennessee, "I could go out in my front yard and look to the north, south, east, and west and see nothing that looked like success."
But Ellison added that his parents, who worked as sharecroppers, encouraged him and his six siblings to "not to allow your surroundings to limit your vision of the future." As a result, Ellison said he "always had the desire to do more."
As a child, Ellison recalled occasionally visiting JCPenney — the company he would later helm — with his mom. But the family could only shop there for special events like Christmas or Easter.
"My mother was a master at stretching the dollar," he later told TV station WREG. "I really identify with the customers because that customer is my mother."
As a child, Ellison also performed in his family's gospel group, and he's kept up that musicality all these years later.
According to Emory University's business publication, the longtime retail executive's hobbies include "reading, studying presidential history and playing the bass guitar."
He's also spoke about how his faith has served as his personal "anchor" — especially on particularly bad days. "The thing that I've found in my life that's allowed me to be successful is I've always believed in something greater than myself," he said at the NRF's 2019 Big Show.
"What do you lean on on those days where self-doubt creeps in and you're not achieving the success you hope that you would?" he added. "For me, my religious foundations allows for me to have something that grounds me."
Ellison attended the University of Memphis, where he met his future wife, Sharyn. Today, the couple has two children together. Ellison has also spoken about making time for his family.
After winning the 76th Annual Father of the Year Awards in 2017, Ellison said that he and Sharyn make the "painstaking" effort of coordinating their calendars so that he can "ensure that I have a lot of accessibility to my children."
College is also the time when Ellison landed his first job at a major US retailer. He had to work his way through school in order to afford tuition, room and board, and textbooks.
After tackling gigs as a janitor, truck driver, warehouse operator, and convenience store clerk, Ellison snagged a job as a part-time security guard at a Target store in Memphis. He earned $4.35 an hour.
Despite the low pay, Ellison told the Charlotte Observer that the job was "the best thing that ever happened to me." The role got him in the door at Target and, ultimately, gave him an employee's perspective of a massive retail business.
Ellison went on to spend 15 years rising through the ranks at Target. But, as he told the audience at the NRF's 2019 Big Show, he harbored major ambitions and a general "intellectual curiosity" pertaining to the wider world of retail.
As a result, he ended up making "lateral moves" rather than simply seeking out promotions even "if it meant I would have to transfer to a different department without making more money or getting an important title." Those moves would ultimately land him at Home Depot in 2002.
Three years later, Ellison earned his MBA from Emory University.
At Home Depot, Ellison was ultimately promoted to the role of executive vice president of US stores, a role that he held from 2008 to 2014.
Then, in 2014, JCPenney came knocking. Ellison was named CEO of the department-store chain. The company's then-chairman Thomas Engibous told USA Today that the new top executive was "the right CEO to lead the next stage of JCPenney's growth."
As the CEO of JCPenney, Ellison met with President Donald Trump to raise concerns about the administration's border tax policies.
Then, just a few years after taking over at JCPenney, Ellison made yet another major move.
In May 2018, news broke that Ellison would be leaving JCPenney to become CEO of home-improvement retailer Lowe's.
And how does the relatively new CEO of Lowe's feel about having the chance to run his one-time competitor?
"It was an incredible honor and a blessing to have the opportunity to lead a company like Lowe's, a company with a great brand, a company with a great balance sheet, a company with over 300,000 associates," Ellison said at the NRF's 2019 Big Show.