I returned to Bentonville, Ark., last week. Ostensibly, the impetus for the visit with Gilda to the hometown of Walmart, a side trip to our stay with our daughter Ellie’s family in Omaha, was to see Crystal Bridges, the magnificent museum of American art underwritten by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. It was well worth the trip.
But let’s not kid anybody. I was equally, if not more, interested in retracing my past as a chronicler of Walmart’s growth while editor and publisher of Chain Store Age than looking at other people’s artifacts, as splendid as they are.
With each landmark we drove or walked by as we entered Bentonville I informed Gilda of its pedigree. Inside a Walmart superstore Gilda marveled at the extensive crafts department. It was a remnant of Sam Walton’s devotion to his wife Helen’s interest in crafts, I told her, a dedication that at one time led to a small chain of craft stores named in her honor. Alas, Sam’s gesture had a bottom line requirement. Poor results shuttered the budding chain. The crafts department, though, has stayed within Walmart stores even as other discounters discontinued the merchandise and let chains like Hobby Lobby, Michaels or Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts take the business.
I first came to Bentonville in 1981 when Walmart had less than $3 billion in sales. The last time was 20 years ago. Bentonville was a typical sleepy southern town when I first visited as part of Walmart’s annual meeting weekend. Even back then Walmart was important to Wall Street, seen as a backwoods upstart to Kmart’s national dominance.
Nothing like today, of course. For 2015, Walmart sales were $485.7 billion, Kmart’s a mere $10.2 billion. Bentonville has grown up with Walmart. Back in 1960, two years before the first Walmart opened, Walton’s Five and Dime store was a focal point on the town square. Bentonville boasted just 3,649 residents. Today there are more than 41,725.
The River Grille restaurant can match its aged steaks against any big city establishment. All forms of exotic fare can now be had along Bentonville’s and the surrounding towns’ byways.
For my first visit I flew into Tulsa, OK, to rendezvous with one of Walmart’s single propeller corporate planes that would ferry me and seven financial analysts to Bentonville. At Bentonville’s newer airport jet service is standard.
My first two visits centered around the company’s annual shareholders meeting. They were more like revival meetings than staid financial requirements for a public company. About a thousand shareholders and store associates attended the Friday morning meetings in an auditorium in the corporate office complex (these days some 18,000 gather in the field house of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville).
Officially, the meeting was called for 10 am but if you showed up then you’d have missed the show which began around seven with Sam regaling the audience with down home humor and anecdotes about his daily visits to stores. Often he would call out an attendee by name to welcome her or him to the meeting, to encourage them to bring the Walmart enthusiasm back to their comrades in the aisles.
When the official business ended around noon it was time for a box lunch. Buses took everyone to Sam’s house, a Fay Jones construction along a creek a mile or so from headquarters. (Fay Jones was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.) The store associates would sit on a grassy knoll in front of the house and then gingerly walk through Sam’s residence, oohing and aahing at the architecture and their glimpse inside the home of Miss Helen and Mr. Sam, as they were known.
After lunch the press and analysts would go on a tour of stores with Sam and other executives. That evening Walmart would host a concert by a well known country western star. Tom T. Hall performed one year, I recall.
Every Saturday morning throughout the year Sam convened a managers meeting. Another 7 am start. A typical meeting could last well past noon unless an Arkansas Razorback football game was scheduled.
For the annual meeting weekend the analysts, press and visiting store associates were invited to witness the Saturday session. Sam would review each store’s merchandise sales, highlighting weekly product winners. Most importantly, he stressed the payroll to sales ratio. No negative deviation from corporate standards went unnoticed and no further negative deviation would be tolerated.
After the abbreviated meeting ended at noon and the store associates were sent back home, it was time to play. For Sam, that meant leading a canoe trip down the Elk River (at least I think it was the Elk River along the Missouri border). As I don’t know how to swim I demurred the invitation to canoe that first year. Sam wouldn’t hear of it. I was dragooned into his navy.
At the end of several hours on the river, which I fortunately never fell into during my two years attending the weekend festivities, all the participants dined on a mulligan stew prepared by Sam’s daughter, Alice.
Much has been written about the brilliance of Sam Walton. To me, his most telling trait was that he didn’t come off as a know-it-all. He constantly asked questions of customers, associates, the media. He had a knack of making everyone feel important, that he could learn something from them.
That first trip to Bentonville I was flattered to hear him praise Chain Store Age during the Saturday morning executive meeting, saying he always learned something from its articles. The day before, during a bus tour of Walmart stores and their competitors, I sat near him. I was 32 and, though editor of CSA, had been reporting on the retail industry for less than five years. Sam kept asking for my opinion on how each store looked, how his competitors were doing, how he could make Walmart better. He did the same thing a few years later in San Diego after a cocktail party during a discount store industry conference. He asked me what I thought about Price Club (what we now know as Costco). I sheepishly admitted I hadn’t yet been to Price Club but went there the next day, sneaking in without a membership card. Sam, however, was thinking a lot about it. Two years later, Walmart launched Sam’s Club.
In the Walton 5-10 store that has been transformed into a Walmart Museum, Sam Walton’s red Ford-150 pickup truck has a prominent spot. The first time I saw that truck was early on a Sunday morning of an annual meeting weekend. My body aching from paddling the day before, I was awakened by a pounding at the door of my Bella Vista condominium unit arranged by Walmart. I opened the door to see Sam in tennis whites standing in front of his pickup. He had mistakenly knocked on my door instead of that of his tennis date, the owner of a Mexican retail chain he wound up buying a few years later. (FYI, Sam was a highly ranked tennis player in Arkansas.)
Also inside the Walmart Museum is Sam’s paneled corporate office, reassembled to look exactly as it appeared on the day he died in April 1992. On the floor next to his chair are two stacks of publications. Atop one stack is Discount Store News, a sister publication of Chain Store Age. Atop the second stack—Chain Store Age with a cover photo of Sam holding a cup of coffee while he listened to some store associates. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but I seem to recall taking that photo several years before, before illness sapped then silenced his vitality.