Inside This Issue - Opinion
Walmart luminaries look back
August 20th, 2012
by David Pinto, Editor
Want to create, build and manage a really successful company? Examine the July 23 issue of MMR, specifically the extensive series of articles commemorating Walmart’s 50th anniversary.
Within that section are bylined articles by 12 former Walmart associates who were either there at the creation or participated in its rise to the top of the retailing tree.
Here, former Walmart’s senior managers reminisce about leadership, empowerment, risk-taking, accomplishment and just plain having fun. For openers, all those who participated in this issue agreed that Walmart had a powerful, charismatic and extremely effective leader in Sam Walton.
Here, for example, is what David Glass, the Walmart executive who succeeded Walton as CEO had to say: "Sam Walton was a unique individual, one of the special people I’ve known. I used to tease him that he should have owned a car dealership, because he had all the skills to make a carnival successful. He was the best merchant I ever knew and the best people person. He was also the most self-effacing, down-to-earth individual. Other than enabling him to support his family, money meant nothing to him. He was in it to make a difference. It sounds corny, but to me he was the all-American boy."
Now listen to former associate Bill Fields on the same individual: "Sam was one of the most competitive people I’d ever met, in everything that he did. Probably one of his most outstanding traits was his ability to take ordinary people and make them believe that they could do extraordinary things. And then make them work as a team to do it."
But Walmart was about lots more than Sam Walton. It was about people working together. Ron Loveless, who joined Walmart in 1964 — two years after the first store opened — and stayed for 22 years, had this to say: "The important thing was to recognize that no single individual can do it all. And it’s knowing what you don’t know, and surrounding yourself with the right people. And Sam Walton had a unique knack for doing that."
Claude Harris was with Walton from the start, in 1962, when the first Walmart opened its doors. "Sam started something he called Correction of Errors File. Everyone was supposed to have a file in their desk in which they would list the mistakes they had made that week, along with what they had done to avoid making the same mistake again. He recognized that everyone makes mistakes, but he wanted them to know what they were, and to do something about them. And he admitted that he made mistakes too."
Perhaps no Walmart executive understood the importance of the people who worked in the stores better than Tom Coughlin, who spent 25 years at Walmart, ultimately rising to the position of vice chairman.
"Every morning that I was in the office, as soon as I got in I’d start making phone calls to store managers in the best-performing stores, asking them what they were seeing that was good, bad or indifferent, and what was on their minds. I had a lot of conversations with them, and I think they appreciated that attention. And that was another lesson we learned from Sam — to recognize the importance of the person in the store."
Jim Woodruff joined Walmart in 1971, eventually becoming vice president and DMM. He retired in 1995. He discussed his first exposure to the Walmart culture: "Sam always talked about integrity, and one Saturday he said a vendor may say he wants to take you out for a hamburger. But if you say yes, the next time it will be tickets to a Razorbacks football game. From there you’ll be invited to take your family to the vendor’s condo in Florida. Sam said we couldn’t go down that path. He would not tolerate any such relationship with vendors. It was a good policy, because you could see things getting out of hand with other retailers."
Bob Connolly joined Walmart in 1989 and, before retiring in 2005, was executive vice president of marketing. He remembers his first experience with empowerment: "My first job at Walmart was managing apparel and consumables. I decided apparel needed remerchandising, so I submitted a proposal outlining my ideas. Bill Fields looked at the proposal and asked me why I had wasted both his time and mine by submitting it. ‘We hired you to do a job,’ he said. ‘Go do it.’ That was how the company worked — but it was a revelation to me."
Connolly also recalls what happened after he redid apparel merchandising.
"I walked a store with David Glass. He looked at what I’d done and commented that we had tried that before and it didn’t work. Then he added, ‘Maybe it will work this time.’ "
Finally, there are the comments of Doug Degn, the pharmacist who became executive vice president of food, consumables and hard lines merchandising: "I still believe that Walmart today, as it was then, is a great place to work. Not so much for what has happened there as what can happen there. That’s one lesson we learned early in our careers and retained until the day we left: Great things can happen."