The Supply Side: Walmart’s Bratspies talks gender equality, Open Call, private brands

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,259 views 

Steve Bratspies, the chief merchandising officer for Walmart, recently sat down with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal for an interview to discuss gender equality and supplier-related topics ahead of the recent Women’s Empowerment Summit in Rogers, where he was a keynote speaker.

Bratspies is also the executive sponsor for the President’s Inclusion Council for Walmart and an advocate for gender equality. Bratspies said the retailer has made progress in recent years promoting more women. He said 43% of promotions last year went to women, but he added there is more work needed. He said there are not enough women at the top at Walmart or any other Fortune 500 company, because they make up just 33 of the CEOs in that group.

“It’s a journey for us at Walmart,” he said. “We have some incredible women leaders at Walmart, and we need more of them because they help our company excel. The majority of retail customers are women, and our leadership should more reflect our shopper base. It’s just smart for us to move in that direction.”

During his speech at the June 27 event, Bratspies said male leaders must welcome the tough conversations about unconscious gender bias that can be paralyzing for some men. He said leaders, male and female, have to find the courage to be vulnerable and have the probing conversation, then share progress up and down their chain of reports.

To improve transparency, Bratspies recently asked Walmart CEO Doug McMillon to consider internally sharing personnel data the company already collects. He said because the data around hirings and firings were not shared prior to that time, it’s harder to get people to believe what Walmart says.

“This creates a trust problem within the Walmart ranks,” Bratspies said. “I wasn’t sure if Doug was going to be receptive to the idea for the first minute or two, but he agreed that sharing the personnel information on hirings, promotions and dismissals was something we should do. Now we share that data quarterly with our staff.”

Bratspies said he is proud of the work Walmart is doing through the organization around gender equality.

Walmart recently held its sixth Open Call for suppliers at its home office on June 19 in Bentonville. Nearly 600 companies took part in the event, and roughly 700 meetings with buyers were held that day. Walmart reported more than 100 companies moved on to the next step, and several dozen obtained immediate deals to get their products on Walmart store shelves.

Toyin Kolawole, CEO of Iya Foods of Aurora, Ill., was one of the companies chosen to move forward to get its spicy fried rice seasoning on Walmart shelves.

“Walmart always sounded like the company that is impossible to get into,” Kolawole said. “Walmart is the only grocery chain to give us such an opportunity like this as a small business. I don’t know of any other store that does an Open Call event the way Walmart does.”

Hugh Jarratt of Fayetteville told the Business Journal both of his sessions went well at this year’s event. Jarratt is already a Walmart supplier, and in addition to being an attorney, he is a serial inventor and entrepreneur through his Jarratt Industries LLC. Jarratt got a “yes” on the company’s bug blocker socks and is excited to work with buyers to get its double-dipper bowls back on Walmart shelves. He said the buyer wants to market the bowls more widely than a complement to The Taco Plate, which he got into stores at the first Open Call in 2013.

“We have a little more work to do, but we love selling through Walmart. They are great partners for our small company,” Jarratt said.

Bratspies said the Open Call is one of his favorite events of the year.

“I am amazed every year at the new group that comes through Open Call,” Bratspies said. “Some of it is big innovation, some of it small innovation, some is tech-enabled and some is just your standard consumer products. It never ceases to amaze me how innovative people are. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Anyone who doubts that should come to Open Call.”

He said the one commonality in all the candidates is their total belief and passion for their products. Some come from far away on their own ticket to meet with Walmart. They are true believers, and it’s so refreshing to see, Bratspies added.

He said a couple of years ago, Walmart made an intentional effort to ensure everyone who comes to Open Call has the opportunity to leave better informed than they were before — even if they don’t get a “yes” from the buyer team.

“We do need to buy new products, and that is a big piece of Open Call. But we also want to make sure the participants can learn while they are here,” he said. “That’s why we set up opportunities for them to learn about how to get a small-business loan at this year’s event and gain insights into how to best work with Walmart.

“This year the new private brands’ expo held the day before Open Call was another opportunity for them to think about supplying private brands at Walmart. That was another tent pole to this event,” Bratspies said.

Private brands at Walmart are big business and encompass nearly every product category from Equate aspirin to Great Value hamburger buns, to Wonder Nation kids’ clothing, and Mainstays patio pillows and furniture. Walmart U.S. has also been dabbling in vertically integrating some products where they own and control the supply chain from the farm to the store.

Bratspies told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that’s nothing new for Walmart as it operates vertically integrated business around the world to serve stores in other countries. He said the primary reason Walmart is in milk production in Indiana is to better understand those markets. The company recently announced a similar venture for beef products.

Bratspies said the best way for Walmart to understand the pricing structure of a category is to operate it. Those insights can then be shared with suppliers to help bring down costs.

Bratspies said understanding the complete cost structure also helps Walmart better negotiate prices with suppliers. He said the Indiana milk plant is already unlocking new supply chain efficiencies and the move to offer a Walmart-owned beef line is also expected to provide insights.

Despite those successes, Bratspies said has no “master plan” to become a large-scale manufacturer.

“We are talking [about] one milk plant and one meat plant, which is a drop in the bucket to Walmart’s total need for these products,” he said. “Our suppliers are, and will always be, incredibly important to us.”

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.