Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Wal-Mart CEO to Owner of the KC Royals

David Glass stood before exultant fans in Kauffman Stadium Wednesday evening. As television cameras recorded the scene, the 79-year-old owner and chief executive of the Kansas City Royals thanked the faithful for their support of his team that, by virtue of their four game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, is headed to the World Series for the first time since 1985. Indeed, this is the first time in 28 years that the Royals had qualified for any post-season activity.

Glass has owned the Royals since he shelled out $96 million in 2000. For the seven years prior to his ownership he was the CEO of the baseball franchise founded by Ewing Kauffman, who died in 1993. During Glass’ tenure as head Royal, Kansas City was a model of ineptitude, setting records for annual futility. Fans were infuriated, believing the team was more concerned with fielding the lowest paid roster in the sport than with being competitive. This year’s payroll started at $92 million, 19th out of the 30 major league teams.

Paying low wages was something Glass was all too familiar with. You see, from 1988 to 2000, Glass was president and CEO of Wal-Mart. And that’s where my connection to David Glass lies. As head of Wal-Mart, succeeding founder Sam Walton, Glass oversaw its growth from $20.6 billion to $191.3 billion, from 1,381 domestic stores to 4,190 stores in countries as diverse as Great Britain, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, China and Germany. 

He has a wry sense of humor. He could be self-effacing. He would tell the story of the time Walton tried to recruit him in 1962 when he was invited to attend the opening of the second Wal-Mart, in Harrison, Ark. At the time Glass was a financial officer with a small drug store chain in Springfield, MO. As related by Vance H. Trimble in his biography of Walton, Glass said, 

“It was the worst retail store I had ever seen. Sam had brought a couple of trucks or watermelons in and stacked them on the sidewalk. He had a donkey ride out in the parking lot. It was 115 degrees, and the watermelons began to pop, and the donkey began to do what donkeys do, and it all mixed together and ran all over the parking lot. And when you went inside the store, the mess just continued, having been tracked in all over the floor. 

“He was a nice fellow, but I wrote him off. It was just terrible.”

Fourteen years later Glass joined Wal-Mart.

I met Glass about three years later. He was not the most approachable of Wal-Mart executives. Behind his resonant baritone voice I always suspected he did not like sharing anything with the press. And this was before his signature moment with the media. That occurred in December 1992 on NBC Dateline. Glass was confronted with allegations Wal-Mart suppliers in Bangladesh employed underage child laborers, that the company’s vaunted Made in America program was a sham.

Glass, at the time, had bushy, dark eyebrows that slanted up his forehead. With the Dateline camera angled from below his seat, he was the picture of Mephistopheles. He was the picture of evil incarnate.

Glass stormed out of the interview. Though he returned to face the Dateline cameras weeks later, the damage to his and Wal-Mart’s reputation was done.

Over the last five years the Royals have been more competitive. Their general manager, Dayton Moore, has made many shrewd roster moves. As he stood on the infield stage under a black League Champions hat, David Glass could only hope fans would be more appreciative of his management of their beloved, long-suffering Royals. It would help if they won the World Series. 

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