Page 1 of 2

Francis (Frank) Blake needed more than a hammer and a few nails when he got the top job at Home Depot. Blake took over as chairman and CEO of the U.S.’s fourth-largest retailer in January 2007, just as the financial crisis was starting to fester. In a surprise appointment the executive vice president replaced Robert Nardelli, who had overseen the Big Orange Box’s dramatic growth during the U.S. housing boom. Nardelli’s top-down management style clashed with the warmer Home Depot culture instilled by founders Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus.

Self-effacing and candid, the 62-year-old Blake is the opposite of his predecessor and former General Electric Co. colleague. But he still had to confront some ugly economics. Seeing that the home improvement chain itself needed major repairs, he laid off 11,000 staff, sold HD Supply in 2007 and closed the Expo Design Center division in 2009.

Blake rebuilt Atlanta-based Home Depot’s supply chain and rethought its retail strategy. To this day he still taps Blank and Marcus for advice on how to improve customer service and stay true to the original values of the company they launched in 1978.

Today things are turning around for Home Depot, which had sales of $68 billion and earnings from continuing operations of $3.3 billion in 2010. Thanks to Blake’s renovations, it’s performed well during this year’s weak housing and job market. Raymond James Financial upgraded Home Depot shares to a strong buy from market perform after a solid second quarter; net earnings were $1.4 billion, or $0.86 per share, versus $1.2 billion, or $0.72 per share, during the same period last year. Diluted earnings per share grew 19.4 percent over 2010.

To rally his 321,000 troops at the more than 2,200 Home Depot stores in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and China, Blake relies on down-home courtesy. He’s proud of his tradition of hand-writing thank-you cards to employees on Sundays.

His inspiration for this gesture: then–Vice President George H. W. Bush, for whom the onetime lawyer served as deputy general counsel from 1981 to 1983. “He’d spend an hour every morning writing notes to people,” recalls Boston native Blake, who has a JD from Columbia Law School. “As a staff member, I remember the feeling of getting a note from the vice president of the United States saying ‘nice job’ on something. That makes a difference.”