story by Julie Bagley
Editors's note: Bagley is a former Wal-Mart associate who attended the meetings for several years.
It’s no secret Wal-Mart is celebrating 50 years in business. But it’s also been 50 years since founder Sam Walton started the closely guarded Saturday Morning Meeting.
Walton began the meeting back in 1962. Aptly named, the meetings took place on Saturday mornings and ran for about two-and-half-hours. He thought it was unfair for store associates to be working on the busiest day of the week and not management.
In Walton’s autobiography he wrote, “If you don’t want to work weekends you shouldn’t be in retail.”
While executives thought this was Wal-Mart’s competitive advantage, discussing business and solving problems in stores, his wife Helen, thought the meetings cut into associate’s family time.
Former CEO David Glass has said that by the time competitors received their sales numbers on Monday, Wal-Mart made changes before the end of the weekend when business occurred. The meeting started as a way to share parts of the business with others. Walton is famous for studying and remembering numbers. In these meetings, he would call out certain stores or departments and ask for explanations or corrections.
Former executive Andy Wilson remembers a meeting where he didn’t want Walton to call on him. Wilson retired from the company in 2001 after 25 years.
“I’ll never forget it. New Orleans [stores] was struggling. I know Sam is going to call me out and he looked at me and I about passed out,” Wilson said. “Sam said why don’t you give me a report on New Orleans. He knew the numbers and he wanted to know if I knew the numbers and thankfully, I had just been there," Wilson said.
Moments like this highlighted the importance of being in the details whether it was weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly, Wilson added.
Upon former CEO Lee Scott’s retirement, he attended a meeting to let the associates know he was now a customer and could identify with not finding a product in the stores.
At that meeting, Scott recalled his wife making him go to Walmart to buy groceries. He likes a certain brand of yogurt and couldn’t find it. During the now infamous Project Impact, his yogurt had been removed from store shelves. Scott described his experience and frustration and asked the current executives how they were going to correct the customer’s experience.
Spanning the 50 years, stories similar to Scott’s are legend.
As the company grew and evolved, so did the meeting. It started with Walton and a handful of people to dozens, to hundreds and now to associates attending the meeting via webcast all over the world.
Wilson said Sam believed in sharing information. Whatever was working in one store was shared with others.
The meeting still involves presentations from certain departments or now, even regions. With the addition of South Africa into the Wal-Mart family, associates might be given a taste of the local culture. If an associate did a good deed or had an anniversary, it’s recognized.
While recognizing numbers was important to the meeting, so was recognizing the people. Some of those traditions continue to this day. In every meeting, the 25 year associates are recognized.
While the meeting is about business, Wilson said Sam wanted to add-in fun because the pressure was intense and he wanted to lighten the mood. In the 80s, there were sing-a-longs and contests. By the 90s some thought the meetings were getting corny so the focus became inviting guests to highlight an important experience or teaching. They’ve included anyone from athletes to singers to celebrities to executives to presidents.
Some of the names include, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Warren Buffet, former President Bill Clinton, Kevin Clash (Elmo) and Herb Kelleher.
In the 80s, Wilson remembers Kelleher, former co-founder of Southwest Airlines, coming several times to the meetings. He identified with Kelleher because he was doing the same things Walton was trying to do.
“Sam was changing the future of retail and Herb was trying to change the future of commercial flying,” Wilson said.
One time, Wilson was in Alaska visiting stores and ran into Kelleher flying American Airlines.
“I asked him why he wasn’t flying Southwest and he said he was checking out the competition and bringing his pilots to Anchorage over several weeks to listen to them on how to improve the company and that’s exactly what Sam did too,” said Wilson.
The meetings used to be held every Saturday. It dwindled to a couple Saturdays a month to now one Saturday a month.
This Saturday the meeting will include former CEO David Glass, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, Green Bay Packer linebacker Clay Matthews and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit.
No matter what surprises happen in the meeting, the underbelly of it all is keeping the Wal-Mart culture alive. Walton wanted to teach the importance of sharing information and ownership. He wanted associates to feel it was their company and stay engaged, according to Wilson.
“I would leave the Saturday morning meeting feeling encouraged, challenged and knowing what I needed to work on.” he said.