Inside This Issue - Opinion
McMillon at one with Walmart
June 23rd, 2014
by David Pinto, Editor
In many game-changing ways, the 2014 Walmart Annual Shareholders Meeting, held during the first days of June in Northwest Arkansas, was the most significant in the company’s history.
Perhaps most tellingly, it introduced Doug McMillon as the retailer’s new chief executive, the fifth in the company’s 52-year history, and just the fourth incoming CEO who Walmart’s many constituencies got an opportunity to greet.
More to the point, McMillon was more than the new face in town. He was the face of a new direction or, rather, a return to the old way of doing things at Walmart, a way that puts the focus and the burden squarely on the 2.2 million associates who staff the 10,942 Walmart stores in 27 countries that have combined to produce, in this Bentonville, Ark., company, the largest retailer the world has ever known.
First, some background. The three-day festival known affectionately in northwest Arkansas as “Shareholders” (the label means little to local residents beyond some vague reference to another Walmart initiative) attracts some 15,000 attendees, most of them associates from outposts all over the world. Also on hand are financial types, media types, suppliers and all manner of individuals who have attached themselves to Walmart in one form or another.
These diverse groups with a common stake came to Bentonville for one purpose: They sought reassurance as to the health of their company going forward. And they received it.
Much of the time prior to the Annual Meeting was occupied with programs for individual groups — media, financial analysts, suppliers. These sessions reassured their audiences that, at Walmart, despite the economy, the weather, the perils of doing business in foreign lands, the recent management changes, it was business as usual.
All this prep work led up to the meeting itself. There, at the Bud Walton arena on the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus, it unfolded slowly, inexorably, irresistibly, impressively.
Many personalities, as they always do, came to perform. Entertainer Harry Connick Jr. hosted the event, and several members of the music community entertained, to the great delight of a crowd skewed by the associate presence toward the younger set.
Finally, amid presentations by Walmart chairman Rob Walton and the leaders of Walmart’s various businesses, it was McMillon’s turn to perform. For 20 minutes, he stood alone on the stage at the Bud Walton arena and told his audience about Walmart — what it has been, what it is and what it will be going forward.
His task was made easier or more difficult, depending on your point of view, by the fact that three previous CEOs — David Glass, Lee Scott and Mike Duke — were in the audience, the first time the company had hosted four of the five people who had occupied that position (Sam Walton was missing) since the company’s founding in 1962.
But McMillon’s task was made simpler by the fact that, at heart, he was at one with his audience, a 33-year Walmart associate who believed, as did his audience, that the company sinks or swims on their performance and dedication. This talk, then, was for them.
Exactly what McMillon said will not long be remembered. Rather, it was how sincerely he spoke, how candidly he delivered his message, how heartfelt his feelings came across and how completely his audience believed him that made the difference. He was Sam Walton in different clothing, in a different style, with a different accent. And he told his associates what they came to hear: That Walmart is all about them.
If McMillon’s talk had one theme, that theme was technology and, more pointedly, how Walmart plans to integrate online and brick-and-mortar retailing going forward. In truth, much of the preliminary work toward integration has already been accomplished, a fact that McMillon made clear with several concrete and impressive examples. But he made equally clear that much remains to be done — and it is the associates’ job to get it done.
At meeting’s end, the crowd left in a more buoyant, confident mood than the mood that surrounded them on arrival. They were convinced that their company had a bright future — and that that future is securely in the hands of the one person at Walmart who could deliver on that future.
The associates left with something else as well: an appreciation for a company that had brought them this distance to this place in Middle America to hear the opening sentences in the next chapter of a story that has become, in the space of 50 years, an American institution.