Walmart’s Samuel Walton

Lessons in Leadership


Sam Walton believed in high standards and was prepared to go to huge lengths to maintain them.

As his Wal-Mart empire spread across the US, he would pilot his own plane from store to store to make sure they were being run to his liking. If they weren’t, he had been known to shut them down on the spot and remain there until they were brought up to scratch. This kind of determination took Walton from one store in 1962 to 1,000 by the late 1980s. Today, Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest company. Walton was convinced that if employees were not treated properly, they wouldn’t be sufficiently motivated. After floating his business on the stockmarket, he introduced profit sharing so staff could improve their incomes if their store was profitable. He also introduced stock options and store discounts, and called his employees ‘associates’. Walton was one of the earliest advocates of open communication with his ‘associates’, arguing there was more to be gained by sharing knowledge with them than there was to be lost by the competition finding something out. He was also a risk taker, constantly embracing new methods. Self-service was something he popularised, and he fought to bring bigger and bigger product ranges to his customers at the lowest prices he could deliver.

What he taught us:
  • Put the customer first: Walton was the founder, but the real ‘boss’ was the customer
  • Listen to your staff: He placed major emphasis on hearing the views of his ‘associates’
  • Reveal your ambitions: An advocate of open communication, he wanted his team informed
Factfile: Born: Oklahoma, March 1918 Died: April 1992 Business career: Gets franchise for Ben Franklin store in 1945, opens first Wal-Mart in 1962 and a further 450 during the 1970s. In 1987, Walton opened his 1,000th store. Tell me something I didn’t know: He once danced down Wall Street in a grass skirt after promising to do so if the company hit target.

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