Greg Cathey, senior vice president of transformation at Walmart, had plans to go law school after graduating from Ouachita Baptist University in 1995, but instead gambled on a career in retail. Cathey applied for a job at Walmart while still in college to earn extra money.
“I went to the local Walmart Store #318 to apply for a job in 1994,” Cathey said recently at The Summit, a weekly business luncheon speaker series hosted by Cross Church in Rogers. “When I got there to interview at the back of the store, the manager came out wearing sweatpants. He said he had just fired his unloading team for shoplifting, and he was the only one there to unload a 53-foot trailer. He said if you will roll your sleeves up and come to work now, you will have a job at Walmart … that was my first day at Walmart.”
Cathey said when he went to human resources the following day to officially sign up to work, they were not happy with the lack of hiring protocol, but he got the job nonetheless. As a junior in college, Cathey planned to attend law school, and the job at Walmart was just a way to earn extra money. He met a girl, fell in love, and soon discovered he needed to start making money instead of incurring three more years of debt to become a lawyer. Cathey said Cassie, his now wife, was a year ahead of him in college.
“I talked with my store manager, and I was amazed at how much a store manager at Walmart can earn. My manager recommended me for management training, and that’s when I realized my career would be in retail or at least start out that way,” he said.
Cathey spent about a decade in store operations and spent 10 years at Sam’s Club, working as regional vice president and divisional manager over consumer electronics. He said consumer electronics are an impossible category, given declining prices over time. He signed on to Walmart’s International division over partnerships and franchises. He was then named CEO of Sam’s Club Mexico, where he oversaw all 165 club locations.
Cathey said he spends at least two days a week in stores and distribution centers. He said the great ideas and technology that sometimes come out of the home office might work in Bentonville and local stores, but they might not work in the busiest stores in large metro areas.
“Those of you here know how great our local stores are, but that is not always the case elsewhere. I got an email from a store in Secaucus, New Jersey, about how the new front-end confirmation that works well in Store 100 in Bentonville is a mess in New Jersey because of the high volume,” Cathey said.
He made a trip to Secaucus on Oct. 1 to see the problems the manager had described. Admittedly, he said it was a mess. Everyone was frustrated because the store was just too busy for that model to work efficiently. He said the store does about $1 million in sales on the first day of the month and is extremely busy.
“The manager was surprised to see me there on a Sunday, but I told him I needed to see the problems on the first of the month, and that happened to be a Sunday. We sat down and began to work out another solution for that store to ensure customers have better check-out experiences,” he said.
Cathey said the popular generative AI application known as “Ask Sam” helps store employees troubleshoot hundreds of situations and is a great use of the technology. He said on any given day, Ask Sam gets more than 1 million questions. He said Walmart also uses that information to discover that there are problems across many stores. He said if too many people can’t find the Cheerios, then there is probably a problem. The app is also useful to detect when someone might be having a bad day, and a manager may be prompted to check on them.
Cathey was recently in Hot Springs talking with tire tech employees when he also gained insights about how to make their jobs easier. He said the computer they were given to look up tire inventory works great, but that’s all it does. The tire techs said they have to write up a ticket, check it against the inventory on the computer, and if they find the tires, they have to write up a second ticket to sell the product.
“Why is there not a button we can push to buy the tires once we find them?” Cathey said the tire techs asked.
He admitted that sometimes the tech teams work in a vacuum, and they don’t actually get out into stores, and that’s where the best insights are gleaned.
Cathey said his best guess is that technology will continue to do more of the mundane tasks in retail and supply chain, but he believes consumers will still always want physical stores and that sense of community they offer.
“We will get more stuff delivered by drone or maybe autonomous vehicles, but consumers will still want to go out to stores on occasion and shop for things they didn’t know they wanted,” Cathey said.
Cathey was also asked what he looks for in hiring. He said by the time a candidate gets to him, they have already gone through many levels of screening and several interviews.
“I basically look for the right culture fit. I recently hired a new SVP of asset protection from UnitedHealth Group. Mary Welsh had to move her family from Minneapolis to Northwest Arkansas, and I wanted to make sure she was the right fit for the Walmart family. She spent nearly a decade at the CIA earlier in her career. She served as chief security officer at UnitedHealth for nearly 7 years,” Cathey said.