The Man who Shaped America

If there was one story that exemplified the American dream, it was Sam Walton’s. His life makes for the perfect rags to riches tale. A story of unfailing courage and extraordinary vision to build an empire out of thin air. I am amazed how it hasn’t caught the attention of a Hollywood film-maker yet, and who they would pick to play Sam, when it does get made!

Born to a farmer, Sam has earned every penny of his multi-billion dollar fortune. Growing up during the Great Depression, he took up several day jobs to make the family meet ends. Delivering milk, distributing newspapers, waiting tables, the guy did it all. Upon graduating college with a degree in Economics, he joined J.C. Penny as a management trainee. He then, served in the military for 3 years from 1942 to 1945, during World War II. By the time, he completed his tenure here, Sam had a wife and a child to support. It was then that, he decided to strike out on his own. Sam bought the franchise to run a Ben Franklin store and went on to open and run a chain of these. It was only in 1962 that he would open the gates to the first Walmart store, and the rest as we all know, is history!

The first Walmart store, Rogers, Arkansas

So, what is it about this boy raised on a farm, that made him into this legendary, iconoclastic entrepreneur. What made him the single most influential person in the history of retail, this world has ever seen.

Apart from an uncanny acumen for business, Sam had numerous qualities that helped him build the Walmart empire. The guy was quick to learn from his mistakes and had a strong sense of perseverance. His very first lease deal taught him early business lessons that he would bear in mind for the rest of his career! Impressive sales from the first Ben Franklin store, caught the landlord’s eye. In an attempt to establish his own son in the business, the landlord refused to renew the lease, as well as took away the franchise rights. The incident was a formative experience for Sam. One that would set the stage for him to pursue an aggressive strategy to own properties to run his business. Striving to open the second Ben Franklin store, Sam insisted on a robust lease along with a 99 year agreement to expand into the shop next door. The shop keeper refused 6 times before the deal was finally closed! Talk about persistence.

Another quality that I find a constant in people of Sam’s stature, is their versatility. This stands out throughout his autobiography, Made in America, a part of the welcome package I received upon joining Walmart as a Project Manager in 2015.

He was the youngest Eagle scout in the history of the state of Missouri. The guy had a love for tennis. His autobiography will tell you how he managed to quickly escape his mad work-world by fleeing to the tennis court for a quick hour in the middle of the day. He had a full family to look after. 3 sons, 1 daughter. And he still found the time and energy to indulge in activities as queer as quail hunting. What a man.

Also, he almost always thought out of the box. A maverick at heart, following the trend was never Sam’s thing. While the competition was focussing on greater margins and heavier sales numbers by milking the higher purchasing capacity of the urban shopper, Sam chose to locate his stores in the smaller cities. Buying in bulk at cheaper rates and passing on the benefit to the customer, Sam added store after store, on his way to build the retail chain.

In the early days when he was scouting for new locations, he ended up spending quite some time behind the wheel. Quickly rising to the occasion, he bought a second hand airplane to travel faster. In the years to come, this toy-like, small, barely-an-aircraft-kinda-thing would enable him to fly over vast spaces across the country and identify locations for expanding his business! The carrier is still housed, very appropriately, in the Walmart ‘Museum’ in Bentonville, which by the way is an enthralling experience, if you are anywhere in or around the state.

Sam Walton’s first aircraft

And the guy could laugh. Never one to take himself too seriously, Sam built the empire while having a good time every single day. See any of his interviews or meet-and-greet videos, and you would wonder if there was a more fun way of leading life than his. He would make his managers dress up as clowns to greet their customers and shave their heads when a goal was achieved. Delivering on a promise to associates after Walmart achieved a pre-tax profit of 8% for the previous fiscal year, Sam, clad in a grass skirt and with garlands around his neck, did the legendary Hula dance in front of the entire American media! What a way to win hearts.

Sam’s Hula dance on Wall Street, March 15, 1984

In many ways, Doug McMillon, the current CEO of Walmart, reminds me of Sam. Doug traces back his association with Walmart all the way to high school! His first stint as a summer associate, Doug has spent all of his career with this single retail giant! Donning many hats along the way, buyer, merchandiser, manager, you name it. And throughout his journey of moving up the ranks he dabbled in numerous departments from toys to electronics to sporting goods. What rich experience.

And like Sam, Doug exudes charm with every word he utters. I had the good fortune of attending one of his Saturday morning town halls during a work trip to Bentonville. The room’s positivity has stayed with me ever since. I haven’t been in a gathering before that had more reverence for a leader. Just so many Doug fans!

I fondly remember him reading out a letter he had received from a kindergartener recently. Thanking him for her Christmas gifts and for making her mum’s life a tad easier, all written in broken English and discontinuous alphabets in pencil. Doug has his heart in the right place, and he sure knows how to connect with his associates on a deeper emotional level. All of 52 years, he is at the helm of the single largest company in the world. Yet, if you met him, you would find him just like the person living next door. What a leader.

Town hall with Doug McMillon, CEO, Walmart Inc.

To draw a Walmart parallel in our own country, Reliance in what comes to my mind first. A cursory look at Dhirubhai Ambani’s life will tell you how similar he was, to Sam, in his talent to build a conglomerate from scratch. But wouldn’t it be a completely different story for Reliance today, if he had written a proper will in time. Wouldn’t it have greatly benefited the company if the brothers didn’t engage in the heated public battles over inheritance. Wouldn’t Anil Ambani be so much better off, finding his own Doug McMillon to make the executive decisions, while he oversaw the company in another capacity.

Who knows. What we all do know, is that it is leaders like these that make this world great. They are the ones responsible for constantly disrupting, and in turn, building our societies and economies. If Donald Trump was ever, one bit serious about “Making America Great Again”, he should focus his energy on helping budding entrepreneurs like Sam, across the world. Once he is done building massive walls and tweeting his days away on Twitter, that is.

Writer, Language lover, Marketing professional