Walmart execs, employees reflect on challenging COVID year

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,496 views 

Elizabeth Brown, a people lead employee from Walmart Store 5260 in Rogers, shared the news Friday (June 4) that the retailer will close its stores Thanksgiving Day this year.

By Wall Street standards, Walmart had a stellar fiscal 2021, adding revenue of $40 billion to reach a record $560 billion, with U.S. comp sales up 8.6% and e-commerce sales rising a whopping 79% from the previous year.

Shareholders also have plenty to cheer about as Walmart share prices have risen 14.7% over the past 12 months.

But as Walmart CEO Doug McMillon took the stage Friday (June 4) at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) in Rogers, it became evident this year’s associate celebration would be about reflecting on the challenges the company navigated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the event highlighted the successes of its 2.2 million employees to hoist the company to new heights.

It’s been 15 months since Walmart put on a large celebration of any kind other than virtual. But Friday, about 1,000 Walmart employees turned out to the Associates’ Celebration held at the AMP.

“It feels good to be assembled together,” McMillon said as he took part in the traditional Walmart cheer.

While there was no business news revealed at the nearly three-hour event, Walmart did say it would close U.S. stores on Thanksgiving because employees have earned the time to be with their own families. Walmart also announced a partnership with Sir Elton John’s AIDS Foundation to help combat the rise of AIDS in the Southeast U.S., starting in Atlanta, where cases are rising. The company provided no details at the meeting, but Elton John joined the event virtually to say more news was coming on the partnership.

The retail giant said it plans to return to Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville next June for the annual shareholders’ celebration, where typically 15,000 people attend. The company scaled down this year’s attendance, but Walmart said more than 14,000 employees watched remotely. The retailer also hosted musical entertainment from the Black Pumas, Mikey Guyton and Walk the Moon. Each performed two songs for the crowd.

Sam’s Club CEO Kath McLay said her team stuck to three principles during the pandemic: being nimble, making sure the products shined and being kind. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, McLay said Sam’s Club was only testing with club pickup.

“We had 16 clubs, but we instantly needed it everywhere. So it took just seven weeks to roll it out nationwide to all 600 or so clubs, and that is record speed,” she said.

She said the company that sells only large pack sizes was challenged in some categories like bakery, where the brownies come in packs of 24, designed for parties.

“When the parties and events stopped, we couldn’t sell the huge packages, so our team, led by Myron Frazier, figured out a way to reconfigure the packaging down to smaller sizes. That was not an easy thing to do, but it happened,” she said.

John Furner, CEO of Walmart U.S., also spoke of innovation and how it spread across the organization from the total revamp of the hiring process from 14-days to 24 hours. He said that is how Walmart was able to hire 500,000 last year to ramp up and keep stores and distribution centers running when the pandemic shut down much of the world.

He said the speedy hiring process meant workers like Dennette Anderson of Utah could apply one day and begin orientation the following day. He said in the time since she signed on in 2020, Walmart had promoted her twice. Furner lauded the work of the tech team, which also increased the capacity for pickup at record speed.

The Walton family’s Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur award went to Tom Ward, senior vice president in operations, and Srinivasan Venkatesan, executive vice president of global technology. They each worked on adding capacity to the online grocery businesses at Walmart and Sam’s Clubs and navigate the supply chain challenges amid the pandemic.

Alice Walton, daughter of founders Sam and Helen Walton, said in a video played at the event that she was astounded by the growth of the pickup service that grew from 50 cars a day to 500 in many stores.

“I just don’t know how you tackle that kind of growth overnight, but Walmart did it,” she said.

Judith McKenna, president and CEO of Walmart International, also paid homage to her international team by highlighting the actions in El Salvador and India by employees in those counties where COVID-19 is still a considerable challenge. She said Joel deLeon, who works on the construction team in El Salvador, took it upon himself to learn sign language to communicate more clearly while wearing masks and keeping social distances from his teams. McKenna also spotlighted a group of women who work in southern India for Flipkart. She said that in India, women make up just 20% of the workforce, but in the Chenni Flipkart Hub, women make up most workers. Many of them are the first in their families to work outside the home. That is an example of Flipkart sparking change in a country where it often resisted.

“We have long said diversity is our real strength, but I also say inclusion will be our superpower,” McKenna said.

McMillon closed the meeting with a candid conversation about the racial and social inequities raised last year. He thought Walmart and himself had a pretty inclusive and diverse platform. Then George Floyd was murdered in June. After that, he said the world stopped.

“I began talking to more people about the systemic inequities across the U.S. and knew that to change, our organization would have to change inside. We have made some progress, but we have a way to go as we aim to make company leadership as diverse as the customers we serve,” he said.

McMillon called to the stage Patrice Gipson, store manager in the Chicago suburb of Chatham, Ill., where her store was among those looted and vandalized a year ago. For the first time in her career, Gipson said she felt helpless and hopeless as the store she helped to open was torn apart by protestors.

“I stood out in the parking lot talking to customers like the elderly who could not get the medications and others who needed items for their families. I was worried about the 485 employees who work for me and who are not on salary, and what might happen to their jobs if the store didn’t reopen. It was a very dark time,” she said. “Then Doug showed up, and I was able to breathe easier knowing the store would reopen.”

Since reopening, the five stores looted and vandalized last summer in the Chicago area have now administered 25,000 vaccines to the community.

McMillon also congratulated Gipson on another accomplishment over the past year. She will graduate Saturday (June 5) with a degree in business management from Bellevue University in Nebraska, while carrying a 4.0-grade point average. She took advantage of the $1-per-day college benefit added three years ago.

McMillon said he thought a lot about what Sam Walton would say after this past year, and he’s convinced the conversation would be about moving faster to stay up with and ahead of change when possible. He said his expectations of what is possible from Walmart had been reset after last year’s accomplishments.

“When the White House called and asked us to come up with surgical gowns, an item we don’t stock, we didn’t hesitate. The team figured out how to ship 180 million surgical gowns in record time to frontline workers. When they told me we would erect plexiglass partitions at checkout stations in 4,600 stores across the U.S. in two weeks, I had no idea that was possible. It happened. When the White House called and asked to set up parking lots for vaccinations and testing — there was no plan in place to do it. We figured it out,” he said.