Retailing Pioneer Sam Walton is Dead at 74
Apr. 05, 1992
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Sam Walton, the business pioneer who built Wal-Mart into the nation's largest retail chain through high-tech management and exacting customer service, died Sunday, a spokeswoman said. He was 74.
Walton underwent treatment for leukemia in the early 1980s and was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1990. Jane Arend, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, did not disclose the cause of death.
He died at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital, where he'd been staying for more than a week, Wal-Mart officials said.
He was a shrewd businessman, but Walton was better known as an innovator and a cheerleader who sold his employees on his philosophy of efficiency and service to the customer.
That philosophy enabled Wal-Mart, which began with a single store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962, to ring up $43.89 billion in 1991 sales and dethrone Sears, Roebuck and Co. as the nation's largest retailer early in 1991.
It also made Samuel Moore Walton one of the richest people in the United States. In October 1991, Forbes magazine placed him and his four children as numbers 3 to 7 on its list of the wealthiest Americans with a net worth of $4.4 billion each.
Born March 29, 1918, in Kingfisher, Okla., Walton attended the University of Missouri, receiving a bachelor's degree in economics in 1940. He went to work as a management trainee at J.C. Penney Co., then served in the Army from 1942 to 1945.
After the war, Walton and his brother J.L. went into business together, opening a Walton's 5&10 and becoming franchisees for 15 Ben Franklin variety stores.
In 1962, Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart Discount City store. By 1969 there were 18 stores, but the company began to grow explosively in the 1980s, sometimes adding hundreds of new stores every year, most of them in small towns. By the end of 1989 there were 1,367 Wal-Marts; a year later, that number had surged to 1,537, and as of March 31, 1992, there were 1,735.
''There was a lot more business in those towns than people ever thought,'' he once said.
The arrival of a Wal-Mart was enough to bring customers from miles away. The stores' reputation for low prices and good service stole business from rival retailers - including Sears and Kmart.
The company surpassed $1 billion in annual sales in 1979, reached $11.9 billion in 1986 and leaped to $43.89 billion just five years later. Those totals included Sam's Wholesale Clubs warehouse stores and Hypermart USA stores, a combination discount store and supermarket, as well as the Wal- Marts.
Walton's stores were able to undercut their competitors because of the company's high-tech distribution system, including bar-code scanners to track inventory as well as ring up a customer's purchases.
Customer service became part of a Wal-Mart employee's job description. Greeters were stationed at the door of each store, and staff members were expected to keep each Wal-Mart clean and well-stocked.
Walton, understanding that good morale spurs productivity, sought to involve Wal-Mart staff in running the business. Store managers were encouraged to come up with their own marketing schemes, and bonuses and a stock purchase plan were instituted.
He was known for making surprise visits to stores, leading employees and customers in a cheer of ''Give me a W, give me an A ....''
''Our philosophy is that management's role is simply to get the right people in the right places to do a job and then to encourage them to use their own inventiveness to accomplish the task at hand,'' Walton said in a 1983 interview.
Walton would do anything for his company. In 1983, after Wal-Mart's profits exceeded expectations, he donned a grass skirt and danced the hula on Wall Street.
Even after Walton stepped aside as chief executive officer in 1988, he remained a driving force in the company, and he continued frequent visits to Wal-Mart stores.
When he was diagnosed in 1990 with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, he sent a memo to all the company's stores, saying he did not want employees - he called them ''associates'' - to hear it from someone else.
''I feel so much better already,'' Walton wrote.
When he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in March 1992, he was hailed as ''an American original'' who ''embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and epitomizes the American dream.''
In his private life, he avoided most interviews and tried to keep the common touch. He occasionally drove his own pickup from his home outside the little Ozark Mountain town of Bentonville, Ark., down to the town square. He and his wife, Helen, who had four children, went to town for groceries. He got haircuts at a small downtown shop and chewed the fat with townsfolk.
Other store owners, having lost business to Walton, began to take their cues from him. Sears, after having balked for years at the everyday low prices that made Walton a success, finally decided in 1988 to adopt the policy. Kmart, supplanted by Wal-Mart as the nation's biggest discounter, converted its stores to bar-code scanners.