Bentonville native Bill Fields, once considered CEO heir apparent at Walmart, dies at 70

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 7,546 views 

A Texas businessman who was once considered the heir apparent to David Glass in the line of CEO leadership succession at Walmart Inc. has died.

William R. “Bill” Fields, a Bentonville native and former high-ranking executive for the world’s largest retailer, died Feb. 16. He was 70. Fields was on a business trip in Boston when he died in his sleep. The cause of death was determined to be natural causes.

Fields was chairman and owner of Fields Texas Ltd., an Austin, Texas-based private investment and retail advisory firm that included a China sourcing component. He started the holding company in 2003 with his wife, Lucia Fields.

In a statement provided to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, Walmart said the following:

“Our Walmart family is deeply saddened by the passing of Bill Fields. Bill had a long and successful career at Walmart — rising from assistant manager to president & CEO of the Wal-Mart Stores division. He helped shape the company’s merchandising formula and use of technology. He was a visionary merchant who learned from Sam Walton and passed that knowledge on to many. He will be greatly missed. Our prayers are with his wife and family at this difficult time.”

Fields Texas Ltd. said the following in a statement:

“Bill was known for the twinkle in his eye and a crooked smile that betrayed his mischievousness. He loved practical jokes, and he was incredibly generous to his friends. For someone who accomplished so much in his life, Bill was remarkably humble. Ask him what he did for a living, and Bill would likely tell you he was ‘a simple shopkeeper.’

“Bill died doing what he loved, working to make the world a better place.”

Fields graduated from Bentonville High School in 1966. Alice Walton, the philanthropist and only daughter of Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton, was one of his classmates.

Upon graduation from the University of Arkansas with an economics degree, the United States Army recruited Fields during the Vietnam War, where he served honorably, achieving the rank of lieutenant while training the Army’s military police. After receiving an honorable discharge, Fields was planning to enter a training program with Sears — where he’d worked to put himself through college — when Sam Walton recruited him to Walmart.

Bill Fields

Fields — whose own father, a pharmacist, died when he was a boy while the family lived in Texas — was like a surrogate son to Walton, according to a profile of Fields published by Fortune magazine in November 1996. The previous year, according to the article, Fields turned down an offer to become CEO of rival retailer Kmart.

“For 25 years I fought against Kmart,” Fields told reporter Patricia Sellers, explaining his decision. “There was a sense of loyalty to Walmart that I couldn’t get past.”

Fields held various executive positions at Walmart, which included assistant to Sam Walton, senior vice president of distribution & transportation, executive vice president of Walmart, and president & CEO of the company’s flagship Stores division, now known as Walmart U.S. In that position, he was responsible for more than 2,000 stores, 600,000 employees, and strategic planning in operations, merchandising, marketing and logistics.

Today, two of Fields’ nephews work for the company. Charles Redfield is executive vice president of food at Walmart U.S. David Redfield is senior vice president of division operations for Walmart U.S.

Fields also spearheaded numerous initiatives with the company. From a March 1999 profile written by Richard Bedard and published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:

“Fields helped develop the retailer’s vaunted distribution and warehouse system. He was behind the Kathie Lee Gifford line of women’s clothing. And, about 10 years ago, he came up with the idea to use customers and associates in advertising circulars. Within Walmart, the initial reaction was unfavorable. Everyone hated the concept, said Jan Mauldin, who had just been hired as a copy editor in the marketing department. We thought he was an idiot,’ she said. We told him it’d take 15 times as long, shooting with amateurs, not models. It was a logistics nightmare.’ But critics of the idea might not have thought about the impact the campaign might have on workers. Thousands of Walmart associates toiling away in the stores jumped at the chance to be models. They lined up for blocks for the chance to be models. They lined up for blocks for the chance to be chosen. Those selected were paid only in gift certificates, Mauldin said.

“Fields’ idea turned out to be a smash.”

Fields eventually did leave Walmart in 1996 for Florida to take over as CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment Group, a division of Viacom Inc. In the Fortune profile, Fields said he left Walmart for “very personal” reasons.

“But the retailer’s fading luster since Sam Walton died in 1992 probably had something to do with his decision,” the article said.

After a year at Blockbuster, Fields returned to his roots as a merchant and took a job as president and CEO of Hudson’s Bay Co., Canada’s largest department-store chain.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 29) at the Weed-Corley-Fish Lake Travis Chapel in Lakeway, Texas.

According to a statement from Fields Texas Ltd., the Fields family has set up the Bill Fields Memorial Fund. The fund will disperse donations to three of Bill’s favorite charities: Arkansas Children’s Northwest in Springdale, Austin Pets Alive, and the Shanghai Sunflower Foundation, fighting the coronavirus in rural China.

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