How Creole Chef Ann Marr Brings All The Right Ingredients to the HR Table.
On the morning of Tuesday, March 8, 2011, as the producers of the CBS Early Show were busy prepping news reports of Prince William and soon-to-be Princess Kate’s surprise trip to Ireland and editing the tape of a sit-down interview with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, something quite atypical was afoot inside the show’s studio. Located within the GM Building on Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan, the rich aroma of a spicy roux was wafting from the sound booth to anchor desk.
This was no ordinary Tuesday. It was Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras.
The olfactory bouquet that permeated the airwaves that morning—a product of jambalaya, Creole shrimp, and bread pudding—was served up by none other than Ann Cuiellette.
Cuiellette, the author of “Classic Creole: A Celebration of Food and Family,” is not some Johnny-come-lately to the Louisiana soul food scene; rather, Cuiellette can trace her linage to Marie Laveau, the flamboyant and notorious 19th Century Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
While one can be certain that her appearance as the featured guest on the show’s cooking segment was incredibly well-timed and no doubt set appetites ablaze at an hour when most Americans are consumed by finding coffee rather than crawfish étouffée, it’s worth noting that the recipes on display were crafted by a woman whose day job is neither French Quarter chef nor tenured Creole culinary historian.
Cuiellette, known professionally by her married surname, Marr, is Vice President of Human Resources at Word Wide Technology (WWT), a leading systems-integrator headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, that provides a wide-variety of IT solutions to customers around the globe.
“The recipes in my cookbook are filled with lots of love and lots of laughter,” says Marr, who affably recalls childhood memories of a house whose door was always open and whose kitchen was readily filled with friends, neighbors, and no less than twelve siblings.
“When people find out about my history, and that I’m from such a large family, they assume that’s why I’m a good communicator – you have to be!” Marr exclaims.
Perhaps Marr’s upbringing did indeed prepare her for success in Human Resources. From honing conflict resolution skills with siblings inside a 16-year age gap to her rock solid work ethic, for which she credits her father—a World War II veteran who worked two jobs and owned his own construction company—Marr continually draws inspiration from lessons learned in her formative years.
“It definitely helps being from such a large family,” says Marr. “Growing up in that kind of environment makes it easy to look at a scenario, remove all the fluff, and focus on resolving a situation—and that’s exactly how it was when I was growing up.”
As Vice President of Human Resources at WWT—the largest minority owned business in the U.S. with over $5 billion in annual revenue—Marr’s oversight not only includes classic HR functions but also guiding leadership development and employee relations programs, as well as the company’s supplier diversity program. In addition, Marr chairs the organization’s charitable foundation and serves on the board of the St. Louis Minority Business Council.
For Marr, who holds a Bachelor of Arts in Human Resources Management from Webster University, the path to HR chief began in the marketing department at another well-known Mound City employer: Anheuser-Busch.
“Working in marketing was an enormous benefit to understanding the way a business operates,” says Marr, who notes that she relies on that early marketing experience to this every day.
Marr transitioned into the Human Resources department at Busch before moving to an executive HR position with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. In 1997, she was approached by World Wide Technology CEO James Kavanaugh, whose enthusiasm and vision for the company he had founded some seven years prior was not only inspiring, but also infectious.
“When I met Jim, I felt I had met someone with whom I could partner with, as well as join a company where I could instantly make an impact and add value,” says Marr, who notes that the slate was clean with little done on the HR front up at WWT to that point.
Kavanaugh vowed to give Marr all the necessary insights into the technology aspect of the business if she would lend her expertise in human resources to building a company and culture that placed a premium on top-notch talent acquisition and retention.
COOKING FROM SCRATCH
Opportunity aside, the move was a calculated risk for Marr and meant leaving Enterprise. At the time, the rental car giant was posting $4 billion in profits. WWT, on the other hand, had just over 100 employees and only recently cracked $200 million in revenue.
“It was a leap of faith—no doubt about it,” says Marr. “But it was one worth taking, especially in light of the executive leadership and that the company was squarely in the middle of a dynamically growing industry.”
In hindsight, it’s a decision Marr didn’t have to second-guess.
“Now, over 16 years later, we’re closing in on being a $6 billion dollar company have over 2,500 employees,” Marr notes. “But beyond the numbers, being able to grow the organization has been extremely rewarding.”
Through their vision to create an exceptional work environment, Marr, Kavanaugh and the rest of the executive team have built a company that’s found itself on Forbes’ “100 Best Places to Work List” two years in a row.
“More than the honor of being named on the list is the validation that comes with knowing we’re doing the right thing for our employees,” says Marr.
Doing the right thing, in Marr’s eyes, means preparing her team of 25 human resource professionals to be cross-organizationally smart and understand the business from A-Z.
“In order for us to make the impact we want, not just in hiring people, but also supporting the efforts of the company, we have to understand the business,” says Marr. “That’s the first thing I impress upon my team: how do we add value to the overall organization? To me, that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
If one were to try and decipher the quality or variable that had aided Marr over the course of her distinguished, 20-year career, warmth might be a good place to start. And perhaps it’s no surprise that Marr perfected this by way of example through those in her family.
Whether it was the warmth of the kitchen where her siblings gathered over dinner—a meal in which her father was always present, regardless of his unrelenting schedule—or the compassion her mother instilled in her, which translates to her present involvement with The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, respect and compassion are qualities that have made Marr an indelible human resource.
“It may sound simple, but my mother was such a strong advocate in how you treat people,” says Marr. “When it comes right down to it, it’s The Golden Rule.”
J.R. Ball is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.