photograph by Justin Fox Burks
(page 1 of 2)
The red sweater and black slacks uniform, the recitation of a pledge, the cheers that open every company meeting — few corporations are more into corporate culture than AutoZone. And few corporations have performed as well in the stock market and retail marketplace during the recession. The auto parts retailer founded 33 years ago with a store in Arkansas has been a consistent “up” arrow in the market reports for the last five years.
Based in downtown Memphis in a building it calls its “store support center” rather than a headquarters, AutoZone has 1,300 employees in Memphis, 65,000 employees overall, and more than 5,000 stores in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Its sales topped $8.6 billion in 2012.
Chief Executive Officer William “Bill” Rhodes is a Memphis success story. He grew up in Raleigh and graduated from Craigmont High School in 1983. He liked cars and drove a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle but wasn’t into car culture or auto mechanics. He got a golf scholarship to the University of Tennessee-Martin, where he earned a degree in accounting.
“I realized I didn’t really like accounting and came to the University of Memphis to get a master’s in business administration,” Rhodes says. “I was recruited as an intern for Ernst & Young in 1988 and stayed with them until 1994 when I went to work for one of my clients, which was AutoZone.”
He started as manager of inventory accounting and worked his way up the ranks. He was named CEO in 2005 and chairman in 2007. In 2012 Forbes ranked him 123rd in CEO compensation nationwide, with $13.46 million in total compensation.
In October 2012, Rhodes joined a group of local investors (including AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde) putting money into the purchase of the Memphis Grizzlies. Rhodes investment was for $3 million, or 1.71 percent of the total purchase price. It’s but one piece of a larger puzzle showing Rhodes’ investments in his community and industry. He is the immediate past chairman of Memphis Tomorrow, a small group of influential chief executives and top officers of Memphis corporations and nonprofits. He acts as Treasurer of the National Civil Rights Museum and is a board member and Vice President of Youth Programs, Inc., the governing body of the FedEx St. Jude Classic and is the Vice Chairman of the golf tournament. He’s a board member of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) and Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA). He’s also a board member for Dollar General Corporation. AutoZone sponsors Memphis’ Liberty Bowl game annually.
Rhodes and his wife, Amy, who also went to UT-Martin, have been married 19 years and have two children. Although AutoZone has a high corporate profile in Memphis because of its downtown office and baseball and football sponsorships, Rhodes keeps a low profile. He’s not much of a baseball fan, plays golf only about 10 times a year now, and prefers to slip on a red sweater and visit AutoZone stores to chat up the help and see how things are going.