Newark, New Jersey
Cofounder, Home Depot, Inc.
Bernie Marcus has indeed been successful, building the world's largest chain of home improvement stores in just under twenty-five years, aided by Arthur Blank, his friend and partner. And while the path to success did have obstacles, Marcus viewed the challenges as learning experiences that helped him become a better businessman and person.
"Why have I been successful my whole life? Because I've always surrounded myself with people who are better than I am. That's one of the lessons that guided Arthur Blank and me when we started the Home Depot, and one that every businessperson in America needs to learn."
Marcus, the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, grew up in a low-income neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, with two older brothers and a sister. His father was a cabinet maker and his mother a homemaker. The family was poor and his father worked fifteen hours a day, seven days a week just to make ends meet. When his brothers were old enough to work, they got jobs to help support the family. When he was eleven years old, Marcus joined a neighborhood gang and soon rose to become its second in command. Realizing that this was not the kind of atmosphere they wanted their children to grow up in, his parents moved to a better neighborhood when he was twelve, despite the additional financial burden this posed.
Marcus has always credited his parents for his success, and acknowledged that they instilled in him a strong religious faith and a positive attitude. He recalled his mother frequently using the Jewish word b'sheirt, meaning "it is destined to be." According to Marcus, she would find good in any situation and always focused on the future. In Built From Scratch, Marcus wrote, "My mom taught me most of the beliefs I possess today, especially … that the way you handle and deal with life's setbacks creates the basis for what you'll accomplish in the future."
Marcus started working when he was thirteen, getting a job as a soda jerk at an ice cream soda fountain. A soda jerk is someone who scoops ice cream and waits on customers. He also worked as a busboy during summer vacations while in high school. After graduating from high school, Marcus enrolled in the pre-med program at Rutgers College in Newark. During his second year, he applied for a scholarship to Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There was some trouble surrounding the scholarship, and he ended up not accepting it.
Disillusioned, Marcus quit college and went to Florida where he lived for a year. But his mother convinced him to return to Rutgers, where he enrolled in pharmacy school. He graduated in 1954, and became partners in a pharmacy where he worked for nearly a year. His heart was not in the job, however, and he quit to work at a retail cosmetics store in New York City. But the company was not making a profit and Marcus left to take a job with Two Guys, a discount department store chain. By 1959, he was in charge of about $1 billion worth of business.
By the time he was seventeen years old, Bernie Marcus had developed an interest in the medical field and decided he wanted to become a psychiatrist. He became interested in the science of the mind after he learned how to hypnotize people.
In 1968, Marcus moved to California where he went to work for a manufacturing company. In 1970, he joined the Daylin Corporation, where he was an executive with its Handy Dan home improvement subsidiary until he was fired in 1978. The next year, he founded the Home Depot with Arthur Blank, whom he had met while at Handy Dan. Marcus retired from Home Depot in 2002, having served as CEO and chairman of the board of directors. He and his wife, Billi, have a son, Michael Morris. He has a son and daughter, Fred and Suzanne, from a previous marriage.
Marcus is the chairman of the Center for Disease Control Foundation and is on the board of directors of a number of organizations, including the New York Stock Exchange. He is active in several community organizations, including the Shepherd Spinal Center and the City of Hope cancer research center. He and his wife are founders of the Marcus Foundation and the Marcus Developmental Resource Center, a support services resource for children with mental impairments and their parents. Marcus has always given generously to many causes, including a $45 million donation in 1998 to help children with brain disorders.