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Glass elevated the art of retail

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It skirts the edges of trivia to announce, yet again, that David Glass transformed Walmart as he redrew the parameters of mass retailing in America. Glass, who led Walmart during its halcyon years when it roared to the very pinnacle of the global retailing community, passed away earlier this year at the age of 84. During his tenure, Walmart rewrote the book of retailing and what the art was capable of producing. He oversaw and helped shape a retailing juggernaut that routinely established sales and earnings records once considered outside the province of mass retailing — or indeed of any practitioner of the retailing art.

Along the way he assumed a place in the retailing pantheon once confined to Walmart founder Sam Walton and very few others. Initially compared to Walton primarily as a complement to the career he was carving as the head of a company once thought, after Walton, to have no head of comparable stature, he proceeded to rewrite the definition of retailing leadership, setting new parameters of what was possible, what was achievable and what constituted reality in the practice, indeed the art, of retailing.

David Glass

David Glass

It would be superfluous to recount Glass’ contributions to the retailing area in this space. He led by word and deed, challenging his peers and his subordinates to consistently improve on what was once considered beyond improving. Using the United States as base, he brought Walmart to the rest of the world, providing shoppers with a retail experience they had previously only imagined or read about. He made price a global centerpiece while introducing retailing techniques and innovations on a scale rarely imagined prior to his tenure.

Along the way, Walmart zoomed past retailers once considered unassailable, taking a position atop the retailing firmament once occupied by such practitioners of the retailing art as Sears, Kmart, Carrefour, Tesco and others too numerous to mention and too insignificant, looking back, to recount. One by one, Walmart’s accomplishments surpassed them, leaving these onetime retailing giants as footnotes to retailing history.

Along the way, his company routinely set new performance records, shattering previous perceptions of what was possible in a retailing community he recast by making billions the new standard, then hundreds of billions, finally embracing the concept where trillions was not only possible, but likely.

Even today it’s difficult to describe or define Glass’ management style. Consistently challenged by Walton, as was his way, by imposing human and technological obstacles to his success, he saw Glass rise to the occasion every time, yet do so in such a matter-of-fact way that he appears to the retailing observer as a person along only for the ride rather than steering the vessel. To encounter him in the halls of Walmart in Bentonville, Ark., was normally an exercise in restraint. Where one only hoped for a glimpse of Sam Walton, one want too reach out to Glass — primarily to inquire as to whether he needed assistance. That was Glass’ way, his formula, his management style, the key to his success. In the end, even a casual observer had no doubt, during those halcyon years, who was running Walmart. It was, indeed, David Glass’ company, as it had until recently been Sam Walton’s.

As was his way, Glass left the company quietly, secure in the knowledge that he had done the best he could, and apparently oblivious to the reality that his best was better by far than what either he or anyone else had renamed possible.

He remained a fixture around Bentonville and in Kansas City after he lead a group that purchased the Kansas City Royals. Baseball, it turned out, was a Glass passion, but the people he had come to know and confide in only wanted to talk of retailing —and of Walmart.

Few dared to ask him, in his retirement years, what he thought about what he had accomplished. Had they done so, they would likely have gone away empty handed. For he was very much of the present and of the future. The past held no allure for him. Nor did personal gratification. What Walmart had accomplished, it had accomplished as a team, with no heroes, no superstars. If there was a superstar in the equation, it was the customer. As Glass so often asked the crowd at a Saturday morning meeting: “Who’s No. 1?” As he invariably answered his own question: “The customer.”

New people are running Walmart today — highly capable, highly motivated people. When they think of the past, they think of Sam Walton. When they ask themselves how they got here, and they really want the truth, they think of David Glass.


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