Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
Caroline Clarke spent 20 years working for Bentonville-based retailer Walmart before retiring in 2017 to focus on her family.
She was vice president of facilities management in the four years leading up to her retirement.
“It was a job I almost didn’t take, and it was probably the best job I ever had. It was fantastic,” Clarke said. “Still, to this day, the first female that ran the department, so it was an honor to be in that role.”
Clarke, 45, managed a team of more than 1,000 employees responsible for over 4,500 stores in the United States, including the retailer’s wholesale division, Sam’s Club, and home office campus of more than 17,000 employees. She had also presented the first round of budgets and drawings/phasing plans for the new home office campus. The facilities management division operated within a more than $1 billion budget to ensure the stores were cared for, provided a good shopping experience for customers and met employees’ needs.
“Something breaks in a store every day, whether it’s a pothole or a toilet, and that’s why we joked around saying we were responsible for roads and commodes,” she recalled.
In her previous role, she was vice president of realty procurement services. She led a team of more than 130 employees who purchased goods not for resale, including toilet paper, plastic bags and parking lot pavement. She was in that role when the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal named her to the Forty Under 40 class in 2012.
“I tell people I buy toilet paper and chicken domes,” she joked in 2012.
The Little Rock native started working for Walmart as an intern in 1997 and earned an MBA from the University of Arkansas in 1998. She worked in the real estate division and found sites for new Walmart stores. She managed entry strategies for Neighborhood Markets and developed the first Supercenter strategy for Washington, D.C.
A pivotal moment in her career was after she had started in the facilities management role. The realty division had a new leader with a leadership style unlike her own, and she had tried to be someone she thought her supervisor wanted her to be. And her employees noticed.
“It was an epiphany for me, and I am so glad that they had the courage to confront me because it is not every day that you can confront your boss to question their leadership style,” she said. “This team had my back, and I learned my greatest leadership lesson at that moment. I knew that my responsibility was to serve the team that I am responsible for and never change who you are as a person or a leader.”
She remained in the role for three more years before retiring to focus on her family. She said she misses the office environment and the people but is happy where she’s at because she can put the energy placed in Walmart into what she’s doing now. Clarke and her husband, John, have three children.
After she retired, she started volunteering as treasurer of the parent-teacher organization at her daughter’s elementary school. She has since become treasurer for Bentonville Parent Teacher Organization, which oversees the parent-teacher organizations for all the schools in the Bentonville School District. Amid the pandemic, the organizations have continued to support student success and re-emphasized teachers’ and staff’s need and appreciation.
“You don’t have to be in a business or in a corporation to continue to be a businesswoman,” she said. “I still have to create budgets. I still have to do monthly reporting. I still have to gather audits from all these schools and turn them in to the government. It’s still running a relatively large business.
“And as my husband jokes, I traded a well-paying corporate job for a non-paying, full-time PTO job. But I honestly wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It feels really good to give back to the schools, especially now that we’re all in this crazy time.”