The first time I met Lee Scott was on a bus.
Scott, at the time president and CEO of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, was in Atlanta in 2002 to address a major conference, and he decided to join the group's bus tour of area stores.
It was quite a sight to see the world's most powerful retail executive so engaged: Riding with everyone else, offering candid insights, and even handing his business card to a store manager in a recruiting attempt.
Jump ahead to last week, the second time I met Scott. He was again a keynoter, at the American Bakers Association Convention in San Antonio, Texas. This time he was recently retired, and I was tapped to interview him on the podium after his opening remarks. He didn't disappoint in being open about his career.
On Critics: As CEO, Scott faced a flood of criticism over everything from the company's labor practices to its impact on local communities. Scott said it took awhile for senior executives to understand that many critics didn't necessarily hate Wal-Mart. “They just wanted to make sure Wal-Mart was doing the right thing,” he observed.
On Sustainability: Wal-Mart under Scott unveiled one of the most ambitious sustainability programs of all time and worked to bring suppliers and others along for the ride. However, “The No. 1 difficulty about sustainability at Wal-Mart was getting the senior management to agree and commit,” Scott recalled. “So we just set goals so big that no one could argue against them because no one believed we could hit them. They were aspirational, we knew we'd be short, but it allowed us to get going and quit quibbling.”
On Suppliers: Wal-Mart had a reputation for being tough on manufacturers, but Scott insisted, “One of my greatest strengths was I didn't dislike suppliers. I didn't distrust them. I was open to building relationships and partnerships. And if they abused me by taking advantage, I was done with them.
“But I didn't want to be skeptical of every one that came into the room.”
On Urban Store Growth: Four years ago, after a long, unsuccessful battle with the community to land the first Wal-Mart store in New York City, Scott was quoted in the media as saying, “I don't care if we are ever here.” Today, as Wal-Mart tackles urban markets and renews efforts to enter New York City, Scott hasn't changed his opinion.
“This is a union issue. I think it's OK to spend some money to do this, but if you compromise too much it's not worth it. There are a lot of places for Wal-Mart to grow. And whether or not we ever get a store in New York City will not matter one iota to the Wal-Mart shareholders.”
People will have varied opinions of Scott's tenure at Wal-Mart. But he was a refreshing voice trying to adapt a giant company for a new era. He's still a straight shooter and remains the engaging man on the bus.