Rob Walton, 70, son of Wal-Mart founders Helen and Sam Walton, is stepping down after 23 years as Board Chairman of the world’s largest retailer. However, the powerful chairmanship will remain in the Walton family with Rob’s son-in-law Greg Penner becoming chairman at the end of Friday’s (June 5) company shareholders meeting.
Penner, 45, was named vice chairman and Walton’s chosen successor at the 2014 shareholder meeting. He is only the third board chairman in the company’s history. Wal-Mart Stores is one of eight family-owned Fortune 500 companies and is deemed a controlled company given the founder’s family owns at least 50% of the outstanding shares.
The Walton Family in early April said it was divesting roughly 6% of its majority stake in Wal-Mart Stores over the next few years into a new trust entity as the family’s interest has risen to more than 50% in recent years from corporate funded share repurchases.
According to information provided by the Bentonville-based retailer, Penner began his career at Goldman Sachs & Co. as an analyst specializing in corporate finance. He joined Walmart as a management trainee in Siloam Springs and held a number of positions in the company, including senior vice president of finance and strategy for Walmart.com and senior vice president and CFO in the company’s operations in Japan.
Since 2005, he has been a general partner of investment management firm Madrone Capital Partners. Penner joined the Wal-Mart Board of Directors in 2008. He has served as chair of the Technology and eCommerce Committee and held positions on the Global Compensation and Strategic Planning and Finance Committees.
News of the board leadership change was made during the 2015 Wal-Mart shareholders meeting held Friday (June 5) at Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. Wal-Mart estimated that more than 14,000 people attended the event. Actress Reece Witherspoon was the celebrity emcee of the meeting.
The announcement saw former Wal-Mart Stores CEO David Glass return to the shareholders’ stage. Glass was CEO in 1992 when Rob Walton was named Board Chairman after the death of Sam Walton. Glass said he and Sam recruited Rob, who was working then as a lawyer in Tulsa, to the company to help them with growing legal needs. Glass said Rob was able to “fix whatever we screwed up.” Glass also said Rob was instrumental in developing the early processes that allowed the company to buy real estate and build stores “without making mistakes.”
Wal-Mart Stores CEO Doug McMillon also took the stage to praise Rob for his work. McMillon said Rob “enabled us to think long term.” McMillon also announced that in recognition for Rob’s years of service, the company is placing 2,400 acres of land in protection. The land stretches from Beaver Lake up to the Arkansas-Missouri border.
Penner, speaking Wednesday (June 3) to employees in the International segment, said in the 20 years he’s been around Wal-Mart he’s been most amazed by the people who have helped grow the company. Penner said the board and corporate leadership is there in support and to back the efforts of the workers out on the front lines.
He reflected on the international growth that has taken place since he worked for Walmart in Japan integrating the “Every Day Low Price” message in that country years ago.
In the coming months Penner – who spoke Japanese to the delegation from Japan – said he’s looking forward to visiting South Africa and Brazil at upcoming events. He encouraged the global associates to soak up the culture and make connections while in Northwest Arkansas so they can take home and share in the stores.
The UFCW International Union, which has for many years called for an independent, non-Walton Family board chairman, objected to the selection of Penner.
“It’s business as usual at Walmart and once again, it’s the hard-working men and women who contribute to Walmart’s success who are paying the price,” the union said in a statement. “Instead of listening to and respecting Walmart worker shareholders who have been calling on Walmart and the Waltons — heirs to the Walmart empire — to a implement a new policy establishing an independent chairperson, Walmart and the Waltons have once again decided to elevate family members to powerful positions.”