Inside This Issue - Opinion
Walmart’s image maker to exit
April 15th, 2013
by David Pinto, Editor
Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs announced he will retire in June after almost seven years on the job.
When Leslie Dach joined Walmart in August 2006, after having served as an advisor to the world’s largest retailer while working for a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, he joined a company in turmoil. Its relations with the media were decidedly sour. Its reputation among consumers, once without equal in the retail community, had deteriorated. Entire communities conspired to keep Walmart away. And its labor practices were routinely ridiculed for their perceived unfairness, insensitivity and lack of marketplace realities that put into question whether Walmart associates could live from week to week on the pay packages Walmart offered.
Now, about to retire — his reasons are obscure, but they center, in the main, on the burden of his weekly commute between Bentonville, Ark., and his Washington, D.C., home — Dach does indeed have some accomplishments to include in his resume. The retailer’s reputation has improved, and much of the criticism previously leveled at Walmart’s labor practices has subsided. Then, too, the furor that once surrounded the retailer as it attempted to enter new markets has largely disappeared.
One fellow public relations executive offered his opinion that Dach helped position Walmart "as being good — good for seniors, good for families, good for the community." Those sentiments are true — to a certain extent.
True as well is the fact that Dach, as a corporate affairs executive, exerted an influence on Walmart that is extremely rare in retailing for someone in his position. In many instances, he dictated policy, at least as far as the company’s public persona was concerned. Certainly the company approached the media a bit less tentatively, though never entirely trusting the press to accurately and completely tell the story of the impact that the company has had on the America of the last years of the 20th century.
But to treat the retiring corporate affairs vice president’s tenure as one of unmitigated success would be to misrepresent both his impact on the company and the place the company now occupies in the business community.
Put another way, it’s not that Walmart’s troubles are behind it. Rather, they have morphed into different forms, different patterns, different difficulties. To cite the most obvious example, Walmart de México is currently the object of several investigations stemming from allegations over the way it has conducted its business in that country. The probes do not bode well for Walmart — and the possibility exists that the company may be assessed billions of dollars in fines or that some of the retailer’s key executives may ultimately be forced to leave.
Then, too, bowing to pressure from local community groups, Walmart has temporarily abandoned attempts to open a store in New York City. Inexplicably, the Bentonville retailer ran into considerable opposition, while both Costco and Target found the New York City terrain far easier to navigate on the road to opening stores in that city.
And of course there was the fire in Bangladesh that killed more than 100 workers in a factory that produced goods for Walmart. And there are the protestors that routinely show up at Walmart stores to call attention to what they believe are the retailer’s low wages and unfair labor practices. Throughout, Dach was the retailer’s executive vice president of corporate affairs.
Yet the retailer is undeniably different from what it was a decade ago — and many of those differences are significant.
The retailer is far more environmentally friendly, a position that manifests itself in such initiatives as an energy-reduction commitment, environmentally friendly packaging and an increased emphasis on sustainable products.
Its public image has improved. It emphasizes healthier food and donates to hunger prevention, veterans and women’s causes.
And Walmart’s stock, which traded at about $45 when Dach joined the company, trades at around $73 today.
Clearly then, Dach has had an impact. The question is, has it been enough of an impact to mitigate the criticism that has increasingly come to be associated with the world’s largest retailer? Truth is, Walmart has much to recommend it. It’s difficult, for example, not to applaud the fact that Walmart employs more people than any other private-sector company in the United States has ever employed, or that its everyday-low price strategy has improved the classically inefficient efficiencies that have always surrounded retail and has, in the bargain, made retailers themselves more efficient.
So, after seven years of commuting between Bentonville and Washington, D.C., Dach is stepping down. He will, according to chief executive officer Mike Duke, continue to consult with the company. But thus far, no replacement has been announced — or even conjectured upon. For those interested, however, it should be noted that the high-profile position as executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart offers many benefits — if more than a few challenges.