Annual meeting entertainment rooted in Sam Walton’s desire for a good time

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 3,849 views 

James Corden, host of The Late Late Show with James Corden, was the emcee for the 2016 Wal-Mart Shareholders meeting held June 3 at Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus.

When the first Wal-Mart Stores shareholders’ meeting was held in Little Rock, nobody came. That didn’t sit well with Sam Walton. He decided to dedicate a whole week to raise awareness with Wall Street analysts. And like with almost everything else, he succeeded.

The star-studded concert extravaganza at the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting has grown through the years from those simple beginnings that originated after the company went public in 1970. That year, the company posted revenue of $30.862 million. Wal-Mart Stores now generates that revenue in about 35 minutes.

Even with the growing financial success, it took some convincing to get the frugal Walton on board with the bigger meetings. He soon warmed up to the idea, according to Walton’s biography, “Made In America.” When retired Wal-Mart executive Andy Wilson joined the company in 1976, he said the small meetings were held in the Bentonville High School auditorium. That same afternoon, the Waltons hosted the employees to dinner at their home, located near present-day Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Wilson remembers Elizabeth Dole, then campaigning for husband Bob Dole’s 1980 presidential run, was at the Walton home and stood in line with them handing out plate dinners to the employees who had come to the annual shareholders’ picnic.

“Sam liked to give back to his associates, and that was a day when management served our staffs,” Wilson said. “There was always food at the picnic, and when we outgrew the Walton home the picnic was moved to Blowing Springs Park in Bella Vista and eventually the picnic died out.”

Soon after, Wilson said Walton began to think about entertainment at the business meeting. Some of the first entertainment he remembers appeared in the early 1980s. Wilson told Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal he was a regional vice president over the southern region, and his stores in Louisiana had the worst shrinkage (loss of inventory) in the company.

“We worked really hard to turn our shrinkage numbers around and thought it would be cool to come up with our own cheer around shrinkage,” Wilson recalled. “Our cheerleaders were known as the ‘Shrinketts.’ And when Sam heard about our cheer he invited the ‘Shrinketts’ to perform at the shareholders’ meeting, and he loved it.”

Wal-Mart said the first year it hosted professional entertainment was in 1980 when The Kendalls and Tom T. Hall, both country artists of that era, performed at the employee picnic. By the mid-1980s, Wilson said the company’s footprint was beginning to grow across the U.S. and in Mexico, and the business meeting was moved to Barnhill Arena at the University of Arkansas in 1987. The place was half empty in the early years.

Clockwise, from left: James Corden (2016), Nick Jonas (2016), Reese Witherspoon and Carol Burnett (2015), Maxwell (2016), Jennifer Hudson (2013), Brian McKnight (2015), Rod Stewart (2015).

He said Walton loved to have a good time, and it wasn’t long before he began to think of ways to add some serious entertainment to the meeting and fill the other seats.

“Sam liked to mix it up,” Wilson said. “In keeping with his ‘swimming upstream’ philosophy, he believed the meeting could be a way to drive more interest in the company stock and also be a platform for sharing great ideas.”

In the mid-1980s, the record companies had the musicians under contract, and Wal-Mart was a destination for music purchases. Wilson said Walton was able to convince the record companies their musicians could get exposure performing for free on the Wal-Mart shareholder stage. They would also perform for the very people selling their products out in the Wal-Mart stores. It wasn’t long before Wal-Mart was the largest customer for the record companies. It was not a fad. Artists have recently released direct with Wal-Mart in exclusive deals.

The performances given at the shareholders’ meeting and the concerts earlier during the week are donated by the artists. Wal-Mart does help with travel and accommodations. Every year Wal-Mart sends out requests to performers who sell into Wal-Mart and extends an invitation to perform. Not everyone who is asked performs, and there can be some private viewing requirements which have been honored in the past for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, who was the finale performer at last year’s meeting.

If an artist such as Perry doesn’t want a performance to be shared via the company’s worldwide webcast, the screen goes dark during the performance. In most cases, the performances during the shareholders’ meeting are viewable by those watching on the internet.

As the music industry has changed over the years with more artists releasing direct through Wal-Mart, the retailer was able to get exclusivity on the launch, and often the artist is asked to perform at the annual meeting. That is how the retail giant booked The Eagles for the pre-meeting concert in 2007.

In an Eagles documentary, Don Henley, a founding member of the band, said the group’s album release in 2007 was exclusive to Wal-Mart, and a win for them after having to endure legal entanglements with their former record label. “Out of Eden,” sold more than 700,000 units in its first week of release. Wal-Mart said in 2007 that represented its largest first-week sales of any music product in the previous two years.

The shareholders’ meeting was moved to Bud Walton Arena in 1994, and as part of the $15 million Walton gift, it was stipulated the meeting would be held there, Wilson said. The stadium seats nearly 20,000 and is packed each year. The majority of the seats are reserved for Wal-Mart employees. About 6,000 store employees from around the world are chosen by their peers to come for the week. Wilson said it was the early ’90s when Wal-Mart decided to bring in employees outside of Northwest Arkansas to attend the shareholders’ meeting and engage in training throughout the week. He said this is when the focus of the meeting really changed from shareholders and investors to the retailer’s workforce.

In an effort to give back to employees, Wilson said Wal-Mart began offering free concerts a night or two ahead of the Friday meeting. Artists who have performed concerts for Wal-Mart in recent years include Keith Urban, Aerosmith and Elton John. The number of pre-meeting concerts depends on artist availability.

Wal-Mart said all the celebrities involved in meetings — including Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus — all do business with the retail giant. The connection might be books, DVD movies, music or even T-shirts like the Duck Dynasty actor Willie Robertson who took the stage in 2013. Wal-Mart said at the time Duck Dynasty T-shirts were the retailer’s top selling apparel item for men and women.

Some of the musical entertainment to perform in recent years includes Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias, Rod Stewart, Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, Florida Georgia Line, Sarah McLachlan, Jennifer Hudson, Lionel Richie and John Legend.

Wal-Mart said it takes many people to pull off the shareholders’ meeting and related activities that stretch from Wednesday to Saturday. The Shows and Events team is led by Mark Henneberger, vice president of shows and events, who has a staff of 27. They all work with hundreds of home office employees who volunteer their time. Wal-Mart also said film studios and record labels work with the retailer to recruit the talent.

“Each year we put together a wish list of performers we’d like to see entertain our visiting associates from around the world. … Film studios work with us to put together an exciting and entertaining show. We check on availability and interest. … If all aligns, they come to Northwest Arkansas,” said Robyn Babbitt, corporate spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.

The group works with Wal-Mart management to coordinate the talent showcased each year and to choose the celebrity host for the meeting. Babbitt said the Shows and Events team develops the list of performers for the week and informs leadership of the proposed line-up, including the host. She said the host can improvise on their own and veer from the script as last year’s host James Corden did several times, poking fun at management and the Walton family.

“Wal-Mart leadership has a good sense of humor combined with the professional host and audience responses … the formula works,” she said.

Looking back at the past decade of hosts the list mostly consists of actors, who also are either comedians or musicians. There have been two stand-up comedians in Sinbad in 2007 and James Corden in 2016. During the past decade there have only been two women serve as host: Queen Latifah in 2008 and Reese Witherspoon in 2015.