Doug McMillon, chief executive officer of Walmart, was in the news recently for all the right reasons. Bucking traditional business wisdom, he announced new restrictions on Walmart’s program around gun sales. No longer, he announced, would the nation’s largest retailer sell certain types of ammunition. More than that, customers would be discouraged from entering Walmart stores carrying a weapon, even where so-called open carry rules are in effect.
In announcing the policy changes, McMillon noted, not in passing, that the status quo, one which put relatively few restrictions on the availability of firearms, was no longer acceptable. More than that, this exemplary leader acknowledged that business has a role to play in a civilized society, a proactive role that must influence, for the better, the carnage that the America of the early 21st century has unleashed on a citizenry that deserves, and is entitled to, better.
We’ll forget, for the moment, that Walmart is a food and general merchandise retailer whose primary function is to sell goods and services to the general public, and that in fulfilling that function firearms are a category that many Walmart shoppers accept and appreciate.
We’ll forget, as well, that in 21st century America, the right to bear arms, however ambiguously that right is interpreted in official and unofficial circles, has become part of the culture, as unalienable as saluting the flag or singing the national anthem.
Finally, let’s forget for a moment that McMillon’s role as CEO is to guide the retailer on its primary mission: to succeed in its business by turning a profit.
Under any logical and time-honored definition of business leader, McMillon’s primary role as CEO at Walmart or at any American business is to serve the customer. In America, you do not serve the customer by denying that customer the opportunity to purchase a product he or she has come to expect and depend on when shopping.
But McMillon is no ordinary executive. When he accepted the job as Walmart’s CEO, following a long and distinguished group of predecessors, he instantly became one of America’s most influential CEOs. In that role, the business community had every right to expect him to perform up to their standards — that is to preach and uphold that basic business tenet of producing and maximizing a profit.
That he has chosen, in this pivotal moment in American history, to look beyond the dollar, to think first of the safety of the American people, to put compassion ahead of business, says all that could possibly be said about this unique individual.
Needless to say, McMillon has performed admirably during his five-year tenure as CEO. He has upheld and expanded the legendary Walmart culture when it made sense to do so. He has overturned elements of that culture when he perceived those elements as antiquated and in need of change. He has faithfully honored that customer and the Walmart associate when doing so enhanced the corporation and the corporation’s mission. And he has not hesitated to confront that culture when he perceived it as holding the company back and preventing it from realizing its full potential as America’s most important, and most successful, retailer.
Yet, unaccountably to some, his decision to put tighter controls on the sale and exposure of firearms to the buying public, has unleashed some criticism, most notably from the business community that should have, by now, come to trust and respect McMillon’s place in the U.S. business community. People who should know better are crying foul, complaining that he is biting the hand that feeds him, arguing that his primary obligation should rightly be to the millions of customers that have kept the Walmart juggernaut moving relentlessly ahead — with an occasional side trip to mayhem and murder.
Doug McMillon, I’m proud to say, is a friend of mine. A good friend. As such, I’m bound to say that no one in America feels the sorrow of El Paso as keenly or as sharply as McMillon.
For i n the end, you see, McMillon is more than merchant. He is a human being. And it was in that capacity that he acted against that tragedy that has made our country a giant shooting gallery, a place where target practice on our streets and in our schools has replaced the once-pleasant pastime of target practice in a shooting gallery.
Walmart will certainly survive both the current spate of violence and the humane response to it of this very human business executive. The wonder here is that, at this time in our history, more Doug McMillons aren’t prepared to live out the true meaning of the duties of a businessman in today’s America: to do the right thing.