First CEO Of Sam’s Club Shares Lessons Learned From Sam Walton

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 289 views 

Ron Loveless, the first CEO of Sam’s Club, met Sam Walton as a child when Loveless’ mom became Walton’s housekeeper. A friend and one-time executive of Walton and Jack Shewmaker at Wal-Mart Stores, Loveless was the featured speaker Tuesday evening (April 21) at the Jack Shewmaker Lecture Series in Bentonville.

The event was sponsored by the Enactus student group at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. Loveless delivered a historical and timeless talk about the lessons learned through his 20-plus years rising through the retail ranks.

“Sam was like a father to me. He coached my first baseball team and after I graduated from Bentonville High School I joined the military and spent four years in the service. After I came home in 1964, Sam approached me about going to college. He wanted to help. He offered to front me the money for college or teach me the retail ropes. Not wanting to go in debt for college, I took him up on the job opportunity,” Loveless said.

He spoke candidly about the value of formal education, saying it is highly unlikely he could repeat the successes he had in business if he were trying to launch a career in retail today without a college degree.

“College is important, but it’s not everything. When the degree is obtained the learning can really begin. That’s important for today’s generation to understand. Learning is a lifelong event. No one signified that better than Sam Walton,” Loveless said.

Though Walton himself was a college graduate, Loveless said he never wasted an opportunity to gain more insight and knowledge from his competitors, associates or anyone else he met along the way.

Loveless began his career at Wal-Mart Stores in 1964 as a stock boy, assembling bicycles, a job he didn’t necessarily love but one he took pride in doing.

“Within a year working as a store stocker in Missouri, I developed a love for retail. I loved the merchandising aspect of the business most. I was finally promoted to manager over pets and I was determined to have the best pets department across the company. I ordered monkeys and even a baby elephant,” Loveless joked.

Loveless said, “No matter what job you start with, do the best you can in that role, whether it’s driving a truck or cashiering or climbing the corporate ladder. Just know that in the real world, hard work can lead to success.”

He said one of the secret’s of Wal-Mart’s success was Sam Walton’s ability to mobilize and motivate ordinary people to work together and achieve extraordinary results.
“Know that not everyone is cut out to be in corporate management. It takes all kinds, diverse talents to create a retail giant like Wal-Mart. The day Wal-Mart will fall is the day its workers lose faith in the mission. It happened at K-Mart and lots of other retailers and Wal-Mart is not immune,” Loveless said.

The four pillars Loveless told students to lean into as they enter the workforce included:

• Do something you love;
• Accept criticism and learn from it;
• Be a self-starter, taking initiative to make changes; and
• Strive to do your best at every turn.

Loveless said one of the most valuable lessons he learned from Sam Walton came after he was working in operational management and was sent to Kansas City to scope out the No. 1 grossing K-Mart store in the nation.

“We had traveled to Kansas City for other business and Sam sent me to K-Mart to take notes of what I saw. I was not impressed, the K-Mart store was dirty, empty shelves and looked inferior to the Wal-Mart in my eyes. That’s what I told him,” Loveless said.

What happened next was shocking and life-changing for Loveless.

“He told me that he should have never hired me and he couldn’t believe that’s what I saw in the K-Mart store. He sent me back up there to spend two days and write down everything I saw that store doing better than us,” Loveless shared.

That lesson was at the core of what Sam Walton was about, “learning everything he could to be the best retailer in the world,” he added. “People who think Sam Walton cared about money have it got it wrong.”

Loveless said Walton never had money on him and he retold a story at the urging of Daniel Shewmaker, Jack Shewmaker’s son who is a board trustee at the NWACC.

Loveless said shortly after Wal-Mart stock went public, Walton, Jack Shewmaker and David Glass made a trip to Europe to promote the stock. Walton seeking to save money rented an economy Volkswagon Golf to make the drive on the Autobahn from Germany to Paris.

He said the tiny Volkswagon was loaded down with boxes of documents and the luggage and could in no way keep up speed on the Autobahn. When they reached Paris, he said a bell boy offered to unload the car and take the luggage boxes up to their rooms.

“Sam told Jack (Shewmaker) I’ll get the tip and he handed the bell boy a U.S. quarter,” which Loveless said left them all speechless.

When the Walton family home burned, Sam moved into a trailer and would have been content to live in it forever, but the company officers finally convinced him to rebuild, Loveless said.

Loveless rose to the ranks as the first CEO of Sam’s Club, a post he held for four years before retiring from retail in 1987. He remains connected to the local retail community as a consultant, mentor and public speaker.

“I want to commend Dr. Evelyn Jorgenson on inviting me to be the speaker tonight. She could have booked Hillary Clinton for $300,000, instead the college has saved $300,000 by asking me,” Loveless joked.