‘Mr. Sam’, by his entire name Samuel Moore Walton is the founder of Walmart, the 1990s’ biggest retail chain in the world, and, in 2010, named the world’s largest company.
Sam Walton was born in 1918 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. In 1940 he graduated University of Missouri in Columbia, with a degree in economics. He started his career in retail business by getting employed at J.C. Penney Company, in Des Moines, Iowa, a modest enterprise at the time.
During World War II, Walton served in an intelligence unit. In 1945, on leaving the military, together with his wife, he moved out to Newport, Arkansas, where, thanks to a loan obtained from his father-in-law, he opened a little store. That was the time of the post-war years when the American economy started to thrive, and, as a result, the average American had access to a variety of home appliances and fashionable items; the free time became a commodity, and generally, life’s optimism started to flourish in a real baby-boom.
In 1950, the Waltons arrived in Bentonville, Arkansas, a little town located at the intersection of three states, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Here, Sam opened a Ben Franklin store on Walton 5 & 10, located in the town centre. That was a variety store which was selling housewares, hosiery, candy, lingerie, stationery, toiletries, and toys. The 1950s was the decade in which the prosperity of the previous time made further inroads (e.g. Americans were acquiring TVs and cars in record numbers); additionally, the highway system between the states became functional, thus paving the way for various road side opportunities.
Sam Walton became an established figure in the small town of North-West Arkansans, he was a member of the city council and in 1961 he purchased the Bank of Bentonville. One year later, at the age of 44, he opened in Rogers, Arkansas his first retail store, Walmart, named like this by the first store manager of the Walton 5 & 10. The name contains Walton’s name and mart, the short version of the word market, the place where people go and buy things. Indeed, the 1960s was a decade that established the market culture, consequently, led to a retail revolution, as in these years an explosion of large self- serve discount stores was recorded.
With the establishment of his first Walmart shop in 1962, Sam Walton proved that large discount stores could take firm bases in small, rural areas. His chain, which put together two philosophies otherwise impossible to combine, good services at lower prices, spread throughout the 1960s in the surrounding states, whereas the next decade witnessed its growth into a national chain, which would have its own distribution centre, which would offer complete services, ranging from pharmacies, car care, to jewellery.
The 1980s brought constant growth to Walmart, expressed in new concept stores (Sam’s Club, based on membership and bulk quantities purchase, and the so-called super centres, the place where the customer could find the complete range of merchandise for his person, life, and work), and in technological innovations (e.g. the introduction of the bar code scanning and the establishment of Walmart Satellite Network).
Walmart spread in other Southern American countries such as Mexico, Argentina, and on other continents (e.g. in China) in the 1990s, whereas the years 2000 brought the idea of accessibility to the next level, the world of the online. The site-to-store programme allows customers to have their online purchases shipped to any of the Walmart store son the American territory.
Walmart’s success triggered the development of the small town of Bentonville and of the surrounding area. Bentonville, the place where Sam Walton started his extended retail business, and the host of the global Walmart retail’s headquarters to-day, saw significant economic development due to the fact that many of Walmart’s vendors (merchandise suppliers) opened their offices in the area in order to ensure a swift business connection with Walmart. This further led to a boom of real-estates in Bentonville and around, since all these entities needed office and conference space.
‘Mr. Sam’ died in 1992, after fighting two types of cancer. His enterprise continued to cultivate his founding principles, namely, humbleness and dedication in serving the customer, boldness in finding new ways, even unconventional ones, to satisfy the customers, constant effort to improve the offer of items, as well as the relation with the partners and the customers. What is more relevant however, his personal business model outlived him to the extent that it still represents a viable business recipe.
Sam Walton has become the epitome of the modest servant, who could be found in the shop as early as at 4. 30 a.m., who drove the same red 1985 Ford pick up, who lived in the same house since 1959, meaning long after he became one of the richest man in the USA.
As stated above, this personal humbleness was doubled by boldness in his activity. One of his most important of his ten core business principles (which include appreciating and motivating the business partners and associates, listening to everyone in the company) is swimming upstream. In ‘Mr Sam’s’ own words, swimming upstream means to avoid conventional wisdom: “if everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction“.
Monte Harris, Images of America: Bentonville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2010, Chapter Six, Walmart Leads the Way, pp. 103, 109, 110, 111.