From float trips and camp outs along the Big Sugar Creek near Noel, Mo., in the early days of Wal-Mart and ice cream socials at the Walton’s Bentonville homestead, the annual shareholder meeting has been an evolution in the making since 1969.

But today’s spectacle of star proportion took years to perfect, according to local historians. Tens of thousands of Wal-Mart shareholders will meet in northwest Arkansas later this week.

The first official meeting was held in Bentonville around 1969 when Wal-Mart patriarch Sam Walton and six others gathered around a small table at the coffee shop next to the warehouse to casually discuss the company’s success. That was the year Wal-Mart incorporated and there were 24 variety stores — a mixture of Ben Franklin and the first few Walmart stores.

Walton credited the company’s larger-than-life shareholder meeting strategy to Mike Smith, an investment banker with Little Rock-based Stephens Inc., who helped take the company public in October 1970.

In his memoirs, Walton said Smith suggested the company hold a “real meeting in Little Rock” the following year. “Nobody came.”

Walton said the idea of fun-filled weekend meetings were originally designed to trump up Wall Street support for the infant retailer that largely concentrated on small-town America.

In Walton’s biography, “Made in America,” Smith said at first Walton thought it was a “waste of money” but decided to give the eventful meetings a try anyway in hopes of gaining investor support from Wall Street.

The major shareholders at that time were family, employees and corporate officers in the company’s infancy. But following the company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange it was Walton’s desire to attract big banking interests from Wall Street — which seemed to be a world away in 1972.

In the early days analysts and a few local shareholders would come to Bentonville for a routine meeting on Friday then they were treated to a special event on Saturday — a golf tournament in Bella Vista, a day of fishing on Bull Shoals Lake or floating and camping on Sugar Creek near Noel, Mo., according to Walton’s biography.

Walton shared a story of how one float trip nearly met with disaster when a few folks had difficulty “staying the boat after a few too many beers at the barbecue.” From then on alcohol was banned from the annual meetings.

Joyce Redden of Hackett, recalls attending the company’s annual meeting once she became a shareholder around 1971.

“Those first few years we went to the company headquarters in Bentonville and the meeting was on Saturday morning. They served us a lunch buffet and occasionally brought in someone to sing,” Redden said during a recent interview.

In the early days of Wal-Mart the Waltons held shareholder meetings and then hos

ted annual employee picnics on the lawn of their Bentonville home, near the site of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

In his book, Walton recalled a few ice cream socials with hundreds of folks on the ground of their family home saying “it was a great time with associates.”

The employee picnic had moved to Blowing Springs, park in Bella Vista by the early 80s. Candy, a local Walmart associate, shared her earliest meeting memories on the company’s corporate website.

She writes: “In 1980 there were not many associates in the home office, we were able to have a Walmart company picnic at Blowing Springs and our families were also invited. It was held on a Saturday in September or October.”

She remembers eating barbecue seated on blankets spread across the ground when someone patted her on the shoulder and introduced himself as Sam Walton.

“He had such a great smile that just spread cheer all over the park. He asked our names and our family's names, he also wanted to know where we worked in the company. Needless to say, I never forgot my first meeting with Mr. Sam,” she noted.

The annual meetings eventually outgrew every possible venue in Benton County and were then moved to Barnhill Arena at the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s. When Bud Walton Arena was completed in the mid 1990s the meeting relocated to that venue which has seating for 17,000 and it is filled to capacity each year. The University of Arkansas received $1.4 million for the use of their facilities by Wal-Mart’s shareholder events held last year, according to the retailer’s annual proxy filing.

Shareholders like Redden, say they still enjoy making the annual trip to the shareholders’ meeting because they never know what entertainment will take the stage. One of her all-time favorite performances was Garth Brooks who appeared in 2005.

A seat at Wal-Mart’s annual shareholder meeting is a coveted asset even if the show starts promptly at 7 a.m. There doesn’t appear to be a star on the planet too big to make an appearance, from Will Smith to Mariah Carey or Aerosmith, who is providing a pre-meeting concert on Thursday evening.

While thousands will file into Bud Walton arena on Friday, few likely have any idea what it took to ensure the big event goes off without a hitch.

Flagler Productions, who had a 30-year relationship helping produce the annual shareholder event until 2006, said it took about 250 people two full weeks to set up for the show. There were 1,000 lights to set, 20 miles of cable needed for 38 projectors and 75 audio cameras.

Friday’s event is also broadcast in 15 different languages.

Kim Souza with our content partner, The City Wire, is the author of this report. She can be reached by email at ksouza@thecitywire.com.

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Roby Brock
Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached by e-mail at Roby@TalkBusiness.net. Follow him on Twitter: @RobyBrock.