Wal-Mart history: An insider’s reflections

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 642 views 

Andy Wilson knew at an early age he would work in retail.

His earliest memory of a master merchant wasn’t of Sam Walton. Wilson’s father, James Wilson Sr., ran a general store in a small Alabama town. Wilson and Son, the store his family owned in the 1950s had groceries, hardware, dry goods, a barber and a cafe.

“It was well ahead of its time, but my father died when I was still a youngster,” Wilson said.

In 1976, Wilson finished college and was immediately recruited into Wal-Mart’s store manager training program.

“Wal-Mart had 100 stores and had began an aggressive expansion east of Mississippi. The company was growing at half its size adding 50 stores a year. Sam heavily recruited local graduates in the southeast to help build those markets,” Wilson said.

The next few years were a blur for Wilson who eventually became store manager of a Wal-Mart in Tupelo, Miss., albeit not for long.

He climbed the Wal-Mart ladder making a stop in Memphis and then Fort Smith. During this time of rapid expansion, Wilson said the company acquired between 50 and 75 locations, buying Mohr Value, Grand Central, Supersaver and McLane Company.

In 1986, Wilson became a regional vice president, overseeing 120 stories in 12 states. He relocated his wife and young daughter to Fayetteville. He was based out of Bentonville. Wilson remembers four years of constant commuting as he oversaw the closing and reopening of dozens of stores in Texas, New Mexico, California, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest.

“I will never forget our first meeting at Sam and Helen’s home after I had been promoted. Helen asked my wife why we had moved to Fayetteville and not Bentonville,” Wilson said. “My life flashed before my eyes momentarily, but thankfully my wife gave her a satisfactory answer.”

Wilson’s wife explained that they had found a church and school that best suited their family. Wilson said the answer met with Helen’s approval.

The 80s were a remarkable decade of growth for Wal-Mart as it perfected its regional distribution system and introduced the supercenter. Company records indicate that between 1980 and 1990 the store count rose from 276 to 1,528. Profits grew from $41 million to $1 billion during that time frame.

“One morning around 6:30 a.m. I was on my way to our officer’s meeting when Sam called me to his office. That is either really good or really bad and I feared the best part of my day was about to be over. There was a large architectural drawing spread out on his desk that he had been pouring over for hours,” Wilson said.

Wilson recalls Sam asking him what he saw in the drawing. Wilson answered, “It looks like a very large grocery store to me.”

Sam quickly said, “No it’s not. It’s the future,” Wilson remembers.

“It was the prototype for the supercenter, and I remember David Glass saying at the time, there would be 12 underway before the first one could be tested. It was a bold leap of faith by management. As a young officer looking back at that drawing, I remember responsibility dumping heavy on me that day,” Wilson said.

During this time Wilson had the opportunity to travel with Sam to Wal-Mart stores across the country, and its competitors.

“We toured K-Mart and then Sam wanted to know everything good we saw there. We talked about ways to implement the ideas we liked but never talked about the dislikes,” Wilson said.

He credits Sam with teaching him the “what can I learn” attitude from every situation he has faced through the years.

“Spending time with Sam changed me as a leader,” Wilson said candidly. “I was often too caught up in store numbers. I would start rattling off sales figures and Sam would stop me and ask about the store manager and the people who worked there. The learning begins with people first, and I have never forgot it.”

Wilson said Sam made a constant effort to teach and indoctrinate his generation of leaders in Wal-Mart’s unique corporate culture.

“I remember my first quail hunting trip with Sam to south Texas.There were four trailers lined up in a square with a fire pit in the middle. He took time and poured into us the values he felt strongly about. He was one of richest people in the world, but he checked his ego at the door and modeled humility, like no other.” Wilson said.

As he walked with Sam and Old Roy Jr. (Sam’s dog), toting a gun in the dark, Wilson said his greatest fear at that moment was stepping in a hole and misfiring.

“I don’t know what would have been worse, accidentally shooting Sam or his beloved pup,” Wilson joked.

In 1996, Wilson was asked by CEO David Glass to take over the company’s human resource division where he served until retiring in 2001, after 25 years with the company.

Wal-Mart culture involves a sense of urgency, humility and ability to change and adapt at every turn, Wilson said.

“Not everyone can handle the fast pace. Every day was hard. But I was blessed beyond measure to have grown up there,” he said.

After his retirement from Wal-Mart, Wilson spent the next seven years as the CEO of Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics, and adjunct professor at John Brown University.

Since 2008, he has served as the executive leader of ministry and operations at Cross Church.