“You’re going to make me emotional,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said before pausing a few seconds to gather his voice and his thoughts to answer the reporter’s question: What’s your favorite Sam Walton memory?
Walmart co-founder Sam Walton would have been 100 years old March 29. The 2018 shareholders week included a centennial celebration of the retail legend’s life. Walton was 32-years-old when he moved his family to Bentonville and opened the original Five and Dime store on the town square on May 9, 1950.
Over the next four decades he would build the nation’s largest retail enterprise. David Glass, now the owner of the Kansas City Royals, became Walmart CEO in 1988 and worked with Walton who served as chairman until his death in April 1992. Glass recently told Talk Business & Politics Walton was “obsessed with customers” and the best ideas came from within the company’s workforce. He said Walton was a listener and a perpetual student of retail, always mining the best practices of all competitors. He was also willing to react to what customers wanted.
He believes Walton would be pleased with where the company is, but wouldn’t be completely satisfied because there is always room to improve. Retired Walmart exec Andy Wilson, who worked directly with Walton, described him as a servant leader who believed everyone in the company could make a difference. He took time to be out in stores, not just to meet the workforce, but because he was truly interest in what they had to say, Wilson added.
“Sam truly believed the people made the difference at Walmart.”
As hundreds of Walmart employees and shareholders toured the Walmart Museum in Bentonville, an exhibit provided space for the visitors to leave a written tribute to Walton. Some of the common responses to Walton’s Legacy mentioned pride, leadership with humility, respect for the workforce, and integrity.
Jen from Canada wrote, “Lead by example and focused on #1 … customers!” Another noted, “Putting people before himself. Live on in our hearts Sam Walton.” Walton was credited in one tribute with “Bettering the lives of many, including me.” Claire from Asda wrote, ”Inspiring us to be good people to respect each other whoever you may be. His quotes will forever live on.”
Others believe Walton’s legacy is his entrepreneurial spirit that championed capitalism Walton is credited with developing a culture focused on service to customers, respect for individuals, striving for excellence and acting with integrity. He said the Walmart story is about “believing in your ideas even when some other folks don’t, and about sticking to your guns.”
Walton had 10 rules for building a business and many of those concepts from commitment to sharing profits to appreciating employees are what are often talked about in Walton quotes used by Walmart. Other concepts include celebrating successes and if possible find humor in failures, not taking yourself too seriously, listening to everyone in the company, exceeding customer expectations, and controlling expenses.
McMillon fielded a few questions from the media Friday (June 1) following the 2018 shareholders meeting. The request for his favorite Walton story was the final media question.
McMillon said he attended his first shareholder meeting in 1983 when his father, who owned a few shares of the company, took him to the meeting then held in the Walmart auditorium. Over the years, McMillon said he watched Sam lead the meetings and this time of year is always emotional and nostalgic.
“I understand how special he was and how much obligation we have to carry on the special nature of this company,” McMillon said.
His favorite story involves a Saturday morning meeting episode with Sam Walton.
“When I was a new person in the home office and had just moved into buying and during that first week other buyers hazed me saying you have to go initiate a rollback and present it at the Saturday morning meeting. It was a Monday and I didn’t know what I was doing but I got some help from the buyers and I presented an item that Saturday and Sam Walton was running the meeting,” McMillon said,
McMillon presented a “Bait Mate” product. It was sprayed on a fishing lure to make the plastic lure smell like live bait. McMillon said he memorized everything about the item from sales to pricing and was shaking from nervousness.
“Sam Walton was standing next to me with the microphone. He could tell I was nervous and definitely a rookie and at the end of it, he said ‘That’s all well and good son, but what makes you think fish can smell.’ I learned about humor and how to be supportive and still have fun.”
McMillon said he still believes retail is one of the most fun businesses in the world, but trying to figure out how to serve customers with merchandise has it challenges because it changes all the time.
“Sam had this ability to enjoy his work, to take risks and bring others along to let others benefit and that’s what we are tying to do,” he said.