By the time Wal-Mart Stores’ 50th anniversary passes this year, another milestone of sorts will be reached: The company will have been run by successors of Sam Walton for as long as the founder ran it himself.
Walton founded and gave purpose to a discounter destined to one day become the world’s largest company, but David Glass took that vision to new heights and Lee Scott dealt with the positive and negative aftermath of such growth. Today, Mike Duke oversees a company with $419 billion in annual sales and more than 10,000 stores in 28 countries.
“I don’t think Sam would be surprised that the company is as big and as successful as it is today. I think that deep down, he believed it would be,” Maggie Gilliam, of the New York consultant Gilliam & Co., told SN in a recent interview. “He thought if it stuck to its principles there was no limit as to how far it can go. And still the only time it’s tripped up is when it has not adhered to its principles. And that hasn’t happened very much.”
Walton (left), who in 2010 was named to SN’s Hall of Fame, was a visionary retailer whose influence continues to reverberate not only at Wal-Mart but just about anywhere that business gets done. He pioneered everyday low pricing behind innovations in efficiency that businesses in multiple industries would come to admire and emulate.
A son of a farmer who grew up in rural Oklahoma and Missouri, Walton learned retailing from stints as a JC Penney employee and as an owner of several Ben Franklin store franchises. Intrigued by the possibilities inherent in a discount retailer, he founded the first store under the Wal-Mart name in Rogers, Ark., in 1962.
From that unit grew a booming chain of stores serving small rural communities throughout the South. Walton was said to determine sites for expansion by looking at road patterns from the cockpit of his personal plane. Those sites became successful stores by being fierce advocates of the consumer, offering goods at a low price every day.
Although Walton displayed — and promoted — a simple, folksy image, his business instincts were sharp and his company was an innovator, sources said. His company was one of the first retailers in the nation to connect stores to headquarters in a network, and its EDLP promise — “We Sell for Less” — would eventually force competitors of all stripes to adapt or perish.
A corporate structure allowing his family to benefit from Wal-Mart while Sam Walton’s successors in the company could continue to grow it is an enduring and overlooked legacy, said Dave Marcotte, an analyst with Kantar Retail.
“As they were going through all this explosive growth, he realized the best thing he could do was get his family out of the business,” Marcotte said. “Nothing destroys a business faster than a family. Sam Walton’s ability to find a means of sharing the wealth equitably and avoiding public disputes doesn’t get enough credit.”
Marcotte also noted that Walton was keenly aware of the value in the story of Wal-Mart, noting that it lives on in company lore in part because its narrative matches its appetite for growth.
“Sam Walton was very conscious of creating corporate legends. The stories of him flying into people’s backyards and showing up at stores to help stock shelves. Those stories could be true for all I know, but it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It created a corporate mythology, which is something that’s very difficult for a corporation to create.”