Perhaps there is no more iconic retail store in America today than Walmart. This "hypermarket" began with one humble man who drove a 1985 Ford pick up truck. That man was Samuel Moore Walton.
He ushered in a determined effort to market American-made products. Included in the effort was a willingness to find American manufacturers who could bestow merchandise for the entire Wal-Mart chain at a low-priced rate to contest against the market of foreign retail.
Samuel Moore Walton, "Sam", was born on 29 March 1918 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, the son of Thomas Gibson and Nancy Lee (nee Lawrence) Walton. His parents owned a farm, but it was not profitable enough to raise a family. Thomas quit farming and joined his brother's Walton Mortgage Company, an agent for Metropolitan Life Insurance.
The family, now with James, born in 1921, moved around for several years, eventually settling in Columbia, Missouri. Growing up during the Great Depression, Sam did what he could to help his family make ends meet. After milking the family cow, he would bottle and deliver any surplus to customers. He also had a newspaper route and sold magazine subscriptions. He became the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri history when he was in the 8th grade. It was not a surprise that he was named "Most Versatile Boy" in his high school yearbook.
Sam would later say that he learned from a very early age that it was important for them as kids to help provide for the home, to be contributors rather than takers.
Sam attended the University of Missouri as an ROTC cadet. He joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity (I am also a member of that fraternity). He continued to work odd jobs and waited tables in exchange for meals. He graduated in 1940 with a Bachelor's Degree in Economics.
He received job offers from two of the largest retail companies in America, Sears and J.C. Penney. Sam accepted the offer from J.C. Penney three days after graduating from college. He worked as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa where he was paid $75 a month. He worked for them for 18 months. While he enjoyed working in the retail business and excelled as a salesman, his boss threatened to fire him, saying he was not cut out for the retail world. That was because he hated to make customers wait while he dealt with paperwork, so his books were typically a mess. In 1942 he resigned, anticipating to be inducted into military service for World War II. In the meantime he worked at a DuPont ammunitions plant near Tulsa, OK.
Sam served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, supervising security at aircraft and ammunition plants and prisoner of war camps. He eventually reached the rank of Captain. By the end of World War II in 1945, Sam met and married Helen Robson. Now, with a wife and a growing family to support, he decided to start business for himself. With $5,000 of his own money and $20,000 borrowed from his father-in-law, Sam purchased a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas. He was 27 years old.
By 1950 he owned the leading Ben Franklin store in a six-state region due to his hard work and policy of pricing items well below other retailers. The store's success was not lost on his landlord, P.K. Holmes, who wanted to acquire it for his son. However, Sam had no intention of selling. So instead, the landlord simply refused to renew his lease who then bought the store's inventory and fixtures for $50,000.
Sam promptly set about finding another location in rural Arkansas towns. He found it in the tiny community of Bentonville where he set up shop on the town square. Learning from his last experience, he insisted on a 99-year lease. Walton's Five & Dime opened in the summer of 1950. He acquired one store after another until by 1960 he owned 15. In an effort to increase profits, he adopted a new strategy of dramatically cutting prices and making up the difference with higher volume sales. Another important idea that he adopted was customer self-service. In the 1950's, customers had to go to a counter to ask a clerk for assistance. Sam decided to switch to the model where customers could browse through the store and then pay as a central location. His dream was to build big stores that discount all merchandise and place them in small towns.
Mortgaging his home and borrowing large amounts, he opened his first Wal-Mar (short for Walton Mart) in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Thrilled that big-city discounting had come to small-town America, customers flocked to the store. The success provided funding for more stores and, by 1969, there were 18 Wal-Marts in Arkansas and Missouri. Retailing giants like Kmart, Sears, and Woolworths never saw Sam Walton coming and when they did, it was too late.
In 1970 Walmart became a publicly traded company. The first stock was sold for $16.50 per share. Ten years later, in 1980, Walmart reached $1 billion in annual sales, faster than any other company at that time. The rest is history.
Sam and Helen had four children: Samuel Robson (Rob), John Thomas, James Carr (Jim) and Alice Louise. They supported various charitable causes. On 17 March 1992, President George H. W. Bush presented Sam with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A few days later, Sam checked into the University of Arkansas Hospital. He died of bone cancer on 5 April, six days after his 74th birthday. He was worth nearly $25 billion.
"I just don’t believe a big showy lifestyle is appropriate. Why do I drive a pickup truck? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls Royce?" -Sam Walton