story and photos by Kim Souza
Several hundred business professionals bundled up and braved single-digit temperatures to spend the evening with David Glass, chairman and CEO of Kansas City Royals Baseball, who headlined the 87th Annual Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce Banquet at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center Thursday evening (Feb. 6) in Rogers.
Glass, often referred to as the most underrated Wal-Mart CEO of all time, was hired by Sam Walton in 1976 as chief financial officer for the young retail company. It took Walton several tries to convince David to join the young retail venture, but it proved to be a pivotal hire as Glass would spend the next 25 years helping to grow Wal-Mart exponentially.
“It was Glass that helped to pioneer the supercenter concept, and where would be without them,” said Dana Davis, CEO and president of the Bentonville Chamber.
Under Glass’ tenure at Wal-Mart Stores, the share price rose from $3.42 to $55, when adjusted for splits. Sales increased ten-fold and earnings soared from $628 million to more than $5.4 billion. Stores more than tripled to 4,000 and the number of employees increased from 183,000 to 1.1 million.
Davis told attendees that Glass was instrumental in integrating and automating the supply chain with suppliers, spending millions on technology advances that allowed Wal-Mart to business around the world.
These remarks were made of Glass just before he received the Sam M. Walton award, last given in 2011 by the chamber. The award was first won by Sam Walton in 1979 for his contributions to grow Bentonville and the surrounding regions. It has been awarded just four other times between Walton and Glass.
Davis confessed that Glass was lured to the banquet as the keynote speaker, so that he could be given the honor.
“Much of the growth this region and Wal-Mart have seen are credited to the leadership of David Glass,” Davis said.
Glass said they snuck the award in when he wasn’t looking, but he was deeply honored by the gesture.
Earlier in the evening, Glass took the stage as the keynote speaker. He said the last time he spoke at the same function, he joined then Gov. Bill Clinton and Sam Walton who each shared the podium that evening.
“It went on and on and by the time we finished, the place was nearly empty,” Glass recalled. “That won’t be the case tonight.”
Promising to be brief, Glass said he wouldn’t talk baseball, though he was very excited about the Royals and upcoming spring training — especially the 70-degree weather he was anticipating in Surprise, Ariz., in the next couple of weeks. Instead, Glass talked about the rise of Wal-Mart and subsequently Bentonville and the rest of Northwest Arkansas.
“When the family first moved down here from Missouri in the mid-1970s we rented a town home in Bella Vista and my commute time to the home office was about 12 minutes and it was just a two-lane road. We finally moved to town and I cut that commute time in half,” Glass said.
He said it took the company 16 years to hit $1 billion in annual sales and another 16 years to roll over $100 billion — that’s how fast the company was growing, surpassing Sears and then K-Mart to become the nation’s largest retailer.
Glass said Sam believed in centralized management and wanted all of his sales managers who were building other regions to live in Bentonville.
“We invested in aircraft to ensure we could get these managers out to their regions each week and then back here on Thursday so we could put our heads together on Friday and Saturday. Bentonville was good for us (Wal-Mart). It wasn’t always easy to recruit the best buyers out of New York, but it was easy to keep them once they got here,” Glass said.
He talked about the adversarial relationship Wal-Mart and all retailers had with their suppliers in those early days.
“P&G was the worst, they had all the best brands, but their sales managers wanted to do it their way,” Glass said.
“It was Sam who began to see past that adversarial tone and find some common ground — the end customer — that was were we began to focus. Sam and I made a trip to Cincinnati to see the CEO John Pepper to discuss the common ground. P&G sent a team to Bentonville and we worked together to cut costs out of the supply chain and that became the model that some 400 other suppliers have since followed,” Glass said.
He thanked the local supplier community, saying they (suppliers) became involved and have been a tremendous part of this region’s overall growth in recent years.
Glass said the Walton Family was also instrumental in the region’s continued growth. Rob Walton, Glass said, has kept his father’s vision alive at Wal-Mart and provides consistent leadership to the board of directors. He credits Jim Walton with much of the growth of downtown Bentonville, and said Alice Walton’s contribution with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is “as good as it gets.”
He summed up his speech saying that Bentonville is a small town to most outsiders, “Mayberry perhaps, and a long way from Manhattan, but it’s a blessed place to live.”