Editor’s note: Story updated with changes and additions throughout.
Tom Coughlin, an early executive hire by Sam Walton who rose to the No. 2 spot at Wal-Mart Stores before forced to resign in 2005, has died. He was 67.
Kelly Coughlin, his daughter, said he became ill in the last month and spent the past few weeks at Northwest Health System hospital in Bentonville.
“He went in for what he thought were some minor things, but it turned out to be major. His heart just gave out. He was surrounded by his friends and family as he passed way earlier today (April 1),” Coughlin said.
Sam Walton recruited Coughlin from Cleveland to help the then upstart retail company with security. He would later take a lead role in helping launch Sam’s Club. In a May 2013 interview with Talk Business & Politics, Coughlin said Sam Walton liked the model being used by Price Club. He said Sam considered borrowing good ideas a form of flattery. But he had one stipulation on borrowing: “It was mandatory that we do it better,” said Tom Coughlin, a retail consultant and retired executive of Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart Stores.
Coughlin said the early team who got Sam’s Club off the ground were mavericks and incredibly dedicated to this new concept, which was very different from the Wal-Mart model.
“Tom Coughlin was one of the greatest leaders in the history of Wal-Mart. He was loved by those who reported to him. … He was an encourager and true mentor to many at Wal-Mart and in the broader retail segment,” said Peggy Knight, retired Walmart professional who worked for Coughlin at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club.
“I first met Tom in 1983 when he was in charge of human resources for the distribution centers. We worked together for more than 20 years. Even though he rose to the role of president for Wal-Mart operations, he was very humble and encouraged me to never forget my roots,” Knight said.
Coughlin’s retirement from Wal-Mart in 2005 was followed by a grand jury investigation into fraudulent activity which occurred on the corporate clock. Coughlin, who admitted guilt in wire fraud and tax evasion, faced more than 28 years in prison and fines of $1.35 million. Coughlin’s attorneys argued that their client’s health was too poor to survive a lengthy prison stay. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Dawson sentenced Coughlin to 27 months of home detention, five years probation, a $50,000 fine and $400,000 in restitution. Then-U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe appealed the sentence, and when the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said the sentence was too light, Judge Dawson added 1,500 hours of community service.
“Coughlin has suffered greatly, for he had it all and squandered his success. For that he is paying the price and will be punished for the rest of his life,” Judge Dawson wrote in his re-sentencing ruling.
In August 2008, Wal-Mart settled with Coughlin over his retirement benefits for his 28 years of service during a time of exceptional company growth.
In November 2012, In his first media interview since his sudden departure from Wal-Mart, Coughlin told Talk Business & Politics that he launched a retail consulting business – Tom Coughlin & Associates – because it was a natural extension for him because of the relationships he had maintained inside retail circles and the outlying vendor community.
“I was fortunate to run the largest business in the world. I got tremendous satisfaction from my relationships both at Wal-Mart and the vendor community and though I have had opportunities to run other organizations since then, that’s not for me.” Coughlin said at the time.
When Coughlin retired from Wal-Mart in early 2005, he came home to a 2,100-acre ranch near Centerton and a large herd of registered Angus cattle he amassed over several years. However, he said his wife, Cynthia, had managed the farm for so long that his help was not necessary.
“Cynthia had become so adept at managing the cattle business she didn’t need or necessarily want my help,” Coughlin joked. “We call her the cattle baroness around here.”
His work after leaving Wal-Mart included serving as a board member for New York City-based Ken’s Krew, a nonprofit corporation that provides vocational training and job placement services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The organization was founded by Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and a close friend to Coughlin.
Coughlin also served on the board of directors for Geeknet.com, a web-based retail site catering to the tech-savvy demographic. This venture was also launched by Langone.