Sam Walton: A Profile

Published On: 14 Mar 2011

 | Last Updated On: 22 Mar 2011

Born on March 29, 1918 in Oklahoma in USA, Sam Walton was a businessman and entrepreneur best known for founding the retailers Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. He passed away on April 5, 1992 at the age of 74.

 

Growing up during the Great Depression, Walton had numerous chores to help make financial ends meet for his family as was common at the time. He milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver newspapers on a paper route. In addition, he also sold magazine subscriptions. Upon graduating, he was voted "Most Versatile Boy". After high school, Walton decided to attend college, hoping to find a better way to help support his family. He attended the University of Missouri as an ROTC cadet. During this time, he worked various odd jobs, including waiting tables in exchange for meals. Upon graduating in 1940 with a B.A. in economics, he was voted "permanent president" of the class.

 

Walton joined JC Penney as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa three days after graduating from college. This position earned him $75 a month. He resigned in 1942 in anticipation of being inducted into the military for service in World War II. In the meantime, he worked at a DuPont munitions plant near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Soon afterwards, Walton joined the military in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, supervising security at aircraft plants and prisoner of war camps. In this position he served at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. He eventually reached the rank of captain. In 1945, after leaving the military, Walton took over management of his first variety store at the age of 26. With the help of a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law, plus $5,000 he had saved from his time in the Army, Walton purchased a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas. The store was a franchise of the Butler Brothers chain. 

 

It was here that Walton pioneered many concepts that would prove to be crucial to his success. Walton made sure the shelves were consistently stocked with a wide range of goods at low prices. His store also stayed open later than most other stores, especially during the Christmas season. He also pioneered the practice of discount merchandising by buying wholesale goods from the lowest priced supplier. This allowed him to pass on savings to his customers, which drove up his sales volume. Higher volumes allowed him to negotiate lower purchase prices with the wholesaler on subsequent purchases. Walton's store led in sales and profits in the Butler Brothers' six-state region. One factor that made this store successful was its central location, making it accessible to a wide range of customers.

 

When Walton bought the franchise from the previous owner in 1945, the store was doing $72,000 in sales annually. By 1950, the store was doing $250,000 in sales annually, due to Walton's ideas and practices. Because of the variety store's enormous success, the landlord, P.K. Holmes, refused to renew the lease when it expired, desiring to pass the store onto his son. The lack of a renewal option, together with the outrageous rent of 5% of sales, were early business lessons to Walton. Despite forcing Walton out, Holmes bought the store's inventory and fixtures for $50,000, which Walton called "a fair price".

 

Walton went on to open more Ben Franklin Stores with the help of his brother, father-in-law, and brother-in-law. In 1954, he opened a store with his brother James "Bud" Walton in a shopping center in Ruskin Heights, a suburb of Kansas City. He opened another in Arkansas, but it failed to be as successful as his other stores. Walton decided to concentrate on the retail business instead of the shopping centers and opened larger stores which were called "Walton's Family Center." Walton offered managers the opportunity to become limited partners if they would invest in the store they oversaw and then invest a maximum of $1,000 in new outlets as they opened. This motivated the managers to always try to maximize profits and improve their managerial skills. By 1962, Walton and his brother Bud owned sixteen variety stores in Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas (fifteen Ben Franklin and the one independent Fayetteville store).

 

The first true Wal-Mart opened on July 2, 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. It was called the Wal-Mart Discount City store and located at 719 West Walnut Street. Soon after, the Walton brothers teamed up with the business-savvy Stefan Dasbach, leading to the first of many stores to come. He launched a determined effort to market American-made products. Included in the effort was a willingness to find American manufacturers who could supply merchandise for the entire Wal-Mart chain at a price low enough to meet the foreign competition. Despite having billions, Walton still drove a pickup truck and wore clothes from his own discount store, Wal-Mart. Sam's brilliance was evident by the way he permitted the company to embrace technology. In the early 1980's, the business was one of the first to utilize Universal Product Code (barcodes) to automate the inventory process. In 1983, the business spent tremendous amounts of capital on a private satellite system that could track delivery trucks, speed credit card transactions, transmit audio and video signals, as well as sales data.

 

Today, Sam's legacy for low-cost operation can still be felt at Wal-Mart. The corporate headquarters of the world's largest retailer resembles an old elementary school or bus station; there are no marble floors, solid cherry custom-built furniture, or executive dining areas. Management still stays at budget hotels when taking business trips and the overwhelming corporate mission is to keep prices low and associates happy. Walton died Sunday April 5, 1992, of multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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