Inside This Issue - Opinion
‘Look out world, here we come’
July 11th, 2011
by David Pinto, Editor
Frank Gatschet joined Walmart in 1973, at the age of 33, after spending the previous 12 years at Duckwall-ALCO, a regional discount retailer.
Over the next 12 years, as a Walmart assistant manager, manager, then district manager, Gatschet came to influence and reinforce the culture while participating in the retailer’s halcyon years, an era during which Walmart, a 40-store chain at Gatschet’s arrival, would become America’s dominant mass retailer.
Gatschet joined Walmart because he saw an opportunity to sign on with a retailer that was clearly making an impression in the small communities of America’s South and Southwest. His first job was that of assistant manager at a Walmart in St. Roberts, Mo. Within a year he was promoted to store manager.
Over the next six years he managed Walmart stores in such Kansas outposts as Pittsburgh, Manhattan and Junction City. In 1980 he was promoted to district manager. He retired from Walmart in 1985.
When reminded that he is considered one of the core group of legendary managers who built Walmart, Gatschet demurs. "As a manager, you’re only as good as the people you work with," he says. "And I was lucky to work with some real good people — Blue Smocks we called them, because that was the color of the jackets they wore in those days. We knew that the most important people in our store were the customers. But the next group in terms of importance was the store associates — the Blue Smocks — because they were in touch with the customers, talking to them, sharing ideas and information, getting to know them. The Blue Smocks were crucial to the success we enjoyed. I knew that and I knew, as well, that my job was to work with them as a team and develop them as people."
Not surprisingly, some of Gatschet’s fondest memories are of Walmart founder Sam Walton. "I would describe Sam as fair, firm and honest. I called him an inverted manager because he played from top to bottom — that is, his view of top to bottom, which was the customer, the Blue Smocks, then the manager, district manager and finally regional vice president. In his mind, Sam was on the bottom."
During those days Gatschet would see Walton two or three times a year, usually when the chairman visited his store or district. As well, Gatschet recalls, Sam would run the year-end management meetings. "I remember one time when Walmart had just bought a regional discount chain, I don’t remember which one, and Sam got up at the year-end meeting and said, ‘Look out world, here we come.’ We knew that when Sam said it, he believed it. And so did we."
According to Gatschet, Walton set the tone for the company. "He laid out the directives, the priorities, the challenges. He created the rapport, the atmosphere at Walmart. He cared about two things: quality and discount prices. After all, he would tell us, anybody can sell toothpaste. But maybe more than anything else he cared about the Blue Smocks."
Gatschet is surprised at how much Walmart has changed over the years. "It’s totally different now. The direction is from top to bottom, where it used to be from bottom to top. In my opinion, that’s a big mistake. Remember, you’re only as strong as the soldiers who work with you."
Gatschet believes Walmart still provides a valuable service. Its mistake, he says, has been in "deleting a lot of merchandise, too many items." As an example, he points to the paint and hardware department. "Walmart sells two or three brands of spray paint. You can buy the Walmart brand for 96 cents or a dollar. The same size can of a national brand is available for $1.83 to $2.83. But what Walmart has done is decrease the color assortment of the Walmart brand, from eight to four, in an attempt to switch the customer to the other, more expensive, brand. That didn’t used to be the Walmart way."
Gatschet offers several other examples to illustrate the ways in which the retailer has changed. "Go to the sewing department and look at zippers. There are many sizes, but if you’re out of stock on 9-inch zippers, you’re out of business. Same with black and white sewing thread — if you’re out of stock, you’re out of business. Well, Walmart is out of business too often on these items."
Given the chance, would Gatschet return to Walmart today? "Sure, I’d go back — but I don’t know if I could handle the changes, especially in technology. And I don’t know if I’d have the stamina to run a store."
Still, Gatschet has a lifetime of memories, many surrounding the retailer’s founder. "We all miss him terribly — and we still tell stories about him. He would call me on his way to Manhattan and ask me to pick him up at the airport. On the ride from the airport to the store he would learn all there was to know about the store. So when he hit the door, with his legal pad in hand, he was prepared. He’d talk to customers and take notes. He’d talk to the Blue Smocks and take notes. When he left he had a good feel for how you were running your store."
Gatschet recalled one time when Walton came to town with his brother, Bud. TG&Y was on the verge of going out of business. "Sam remarked that that might be a good company for Walmart to buy and asked Bud’s opinion. Bud responded simply: ‘Should we vote?’ He knew who the boss was."
Though Walton was the consummate listener, Gatschet remembers the rare times that the chairman used his power to insist. "His index finger would go up in the air, he’d shake it and say, ‘Let me make this perfectly clear …’ That’s when you knew you’d better be listening — and following his instructions."