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Simon doesn’t waste any time

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The mass retailing story of the year is unfolding at Walmart, where the nation’s largest retailer just announced the most dramatic and potentially meaningful personnel changes in its 48-year history.

The mass retailing story of the year is unfolding at Walmart, where the nation’s largest retailer just announced the most dramatic and potentially meaningful personnel changes in its 48-year history.

Behind this stunning announcement is a 50-year-old businessman who only joined Walmart four years ago and until last June was largely unknown outside the retailer’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters building.

That individual is Bill Simon, an executive whose résumé consists largely of jobs within the supplier community, including senior sales and marketing positions with Cadbury-Schweppes, PepsiCo Inc. and RJR-Nabisco, and most recently as president of Diageo Southeast, and whose biggest contribution to Walmart until last summer was authorship of the retailer’s $4 prescription drug program.

Simon has assumed control of Walmart’s U.S. business in an astonishingly short period of time. Named president and chief executive of the retailer’s U.S. stores less than four months ago, he has already gained dramatically in stature, primarily through his willingness to meet with and apologize to a supplier community that had become largely disaffected and disengaged with Walmart. Assuring suppliers that things will change, Simon promised them that the retailer’s relations with its key vendors, which had deteriorated to a shocking degree, would quickly be repaired.

To make good on that promise, Simon has just announced a dramatic restructuring of the retailer’s merchandising department. Addressing Walmart’s associates in an internal memo, he left no doubt about either the significance of the merchandising realignment or his role in designing it.

"Merchandising is the very core of our business," said Simon. "It’s about giving millions of Americans access to everyday-low prices and a broad assortment of the products and brands they want — whether they are buying in a store or online. It’s that simple. In every sense of the word we are all merchants, whether we work in a store, distribution center, dot-com or home office."

So saying, Simon went on to announce the creation of  "four core merchandising areas, each led by seasoned merchants. This structure aligns similar categories and allows us to be even more competitive in each customer channel, improving how we target and localize merchandise."

He added, "With this new structure, talent and technology are key drivers for success. Much like in operations, we are taking a stair-step approach to build additional roles in merchandising that make career growth accessible to a greater number of people. That’s why we’ve carved out some categories to enhance our ability to grow best-in-class merchants."

Simon then named and discussed the résumés of the merchants who will head the four core areas:

• Executive vice president John Westling was named to head the retailer’s general merchandise and replenishment teams.

• Executive VP Jack Sinclair will continue to head up Walmart’s food categories.

• Andy Barron, who had long been a key merchant at Walmart before being promoted to head up store merchandise execution, will return to merchandising as executive VP heading up the retailer’s soft lines categories.

• Duncan Mac Naughton, once a key merchant at Supervalu and more recently a significant merchandising presence at Walmart Canada, will return to the United States as executive vice president of consumables, health and wellness, and Walmart.com.

Simon then went on, at some length, to name the members of the teams these four senior merchants will head up. In all, he cited some 24 merchants, eight of whom were promoted into their new positions.

Finally, Simon turned his attention to marketing, telling his associates that the company had "created a role in marketing to help us keep the customer at the center of our merchandising strategies, executing in a way that excites customers and drives traffic and sales."

So saying, he announced yet another appointment, naming Matt Kistler, former senior vice president of sustainability, to the post of senior vice president of marketing operations. Named to replace Kistler in the sustainability job was Andrea Thomas, former senior vice president of the home, hard lines and entertainment categories.

Concluded Simon: "The team is in place. It is time to show our customers what the thrill of merchandising is all about — the right product at the lowest cost."

By any definition, this was a stunning display of Walmart’s ability to recognize and correct both real and perceived deficiencies. As well, it spoke of the experience and depth of the homegrown talent available to the world’s largest retailer. Possibly most significant, the recent news out of Bentonville spoke volumes about the character of the retailer’s new U.S. CEO, his willingness to act quickly to change things, his grasp of what’s expected of him in his new role, and the confidence he showed in acting boldly and decisively in his new job to prepare the retailer for the next phase of its remarkable history.

By any measure Bill Simon has gotten off to a very impressive start.


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