WHAT SAM WALTON TAUGHT AMERICA The billionaire boy scout of Bentonville, Arkansas, built an empire on a fervid belief in value, pioneered ideas like empowerment, and revolutionized retailing in the process.
By Bill Saporito REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jennifer Reese

(FORTUNE Magazine) – & SAMUEL MOORE WALTON, dead at 74 after a long fight with cancer, did not invent the discount department store, although it hardly seems possible that he didn't. Mr. Sam grabbed hold of the leading edge of retailing in 1962 and never let go, creating a value-powered merchandising machine that seems certain to outlive his memory. Last year the still-young company earned $1.6 billion on sales of $44 billion. A $1,650 investment in 100 Wal-Mart shares in 1970, when they began trading, is worth $2.7 million today. Says Bernard Marcus, CEO of the $5.1- billion-a-year Home Depot chain and a Walton disciple: ''He taught American business that the vast amount of American people want value. He saw the future, and he helped make the future, and I don't think retailing is ever going to go back.'' While Walton was one of the great showmen of retailing -- if he had been a television preacher he'd have become Pope -- as a manager he was applying such concepts as a flat organization, empowerment, and gain-sharing long before anyone gave them those names. In the Fifties he was sharing information and profits with all employees. He ingested as much data as he could to get close to the customer and closer to the competition. He stressed flexibility and action over deliberation. Wal-Mart is ultimately a monument to consumers: It has saved them billions. Walton's perpetual obsession with lowering the cost to consumers forced prices down elsewhere -- in department stores, for example. Recalls Kurt Barnard, president of the Retail Marketing Report and a Walton friend: ''He always said, 'Nothing happens until a customer walks into a store with a purpose, buys something, and walks out.' That was his philosophy. Satisfy the customer.'' How many times have you heard the words ''customer driven'' in the past five years? Walton long ago wanted manufacturers to see themselves, wholesalers, retailers, and consumers as parts of a single customer-focused process rather than as participants in a series of transactions (see Selling). He personally and permanently altered the relationship between manufacturers and retailers, which has historically been, to put it politely, antagonistic. About five years ago he asked Procter & Gamble executives to view a focus group of Wal- Mart executives talking about their prickly relationship with the packaged- goods company. ''It was sobering,'' says John Smale, P&G's retired CEO. ''His feeling clearly was that we ought to be able to work together to lower the costs of both the manufacturer and the distributor and get lower costs for consumers.'' Walton got both sides to focus on distribution costs and how to cut them. Wal-Mart linked P&G with its computers to allow automatic reordering, thus avoiding bulges in order cycles. With better coordination of buying, P&G could plan more consistent manufacturing runs, rationalize distribution, and lower its costs, passing some of the savings on. This systemic approach is now in broad use throughout the industry. Says Smale: ''Sam's contribution will turn out to be very significant over the years ahead. He's been described as a visionary, and he clearly was that.'' His vision was apparent in 1956 as a Ben Franklin variety store owner. To lure one of his first store managers, Bob Bogle, away from the state health department, Walton showed him the books and offered to pay him 25% of the store's net profit in addition to salary. ''Sam Walton was honest to the core,'' says Bogle. In the early years Walton would show his books to just about anyone he thought could help him. Today the company still shares information, right down to single-store results, with the associates -- as Wal-Mart calls its employees. Profit sharing, equal to 5% to 6% of an associate's earnings, extends to the lowest levels. Says Bogle, one of the many people Walton made wealthy: ''That profit sharing is the yeast that keeps this thing going.'' Once an Army intelligence officer, Walton had an insatiable hunger for information, which in turn equipped Wal-Mart for speedy decision-making. He collected ideas and numbers on his famous yellow pads and converted them to merchandising action using the most rapid means available. At first this was a heavily laden, beat-up Plymouth that Walton would drive -- and none too well, say all who knew him -- from the Bentonville store to outlying branches. That demand for information, and its creative use, is just as evident today. Wal-Mart is deep into information systems, and not because Walton loved computers -- he didn't. His people insisted on serious crunching ability, and Mr. Pickup Truck listened -- another Walton trait -- and then signed the check. So, long before its rivals, Wal-Mart had enough computer and satellite capacity to track a space shuttle or towel sales in Tuscaloosa. Walton's memorial service was broadcast to every store over the company's satellite system. Wal-Mart today converts information to action virtually immediately, a remarkable achievement for a $44-billion-a-year company. Managers suck in information from Monday to Thursday, exchange ideas on Friday and Saturday, and implement decisions in the stores on Monday. This bias toward action left a big impression on General Electric CEO Jack Welch. As he said to a 1991 FORTUNE conference: ''Everybody there has a passion for an idea, and everyone's ideas count. Hierarchy doesn't matter. They get 80 people in a room and understand how to deal with each other without structure. I have been there three times now. Every time you go to that place in Arkansas, you can fly back to New York without a plane. The place actually vibrates.'' Walton often spoke with genuine admiration of his competitors, and with good reason: He knew them intimately and copied their best ideas. No Walton family vacation was complete without lots of visits to competing stores. Says Harry Cunningham, who created Kmart and was forever praised for it by Mr. Sam: ''He not only copied our concepts, he strengthened them. Sam just took the ball and ran with it.'' Walton got to know Sol Price, who created Price Club, and then knocked off the concept brilliantly in Sam's Club. Walton no doubt would chuckle over being labeled a management guru. Says his son Rob, newly named chairman: ''We snickered at writers who viewed Dad as a grand strategist.'' Adds Sam's friend and partner in a local business venture, George Billingsley, recalling the many occasions Walton was asked to reveal the secret of his success: ''Sam would tell a different secret every time.'' Indeed, his friends cite Walton's flexibility as one of his most endearing traits. ''Change was his middle name,'' says Billingsley. ''He was a terror to travel with. You never knew where you were going next.'' Perhaps most remarkable is that the whole package -- billionaire, America's No. 1 retailer, fierce competitor -- was wrapped in a personality apparently unencumbered by anger. It seems that the only thing Sam Walton ever stayed mad at was quail. ''He was an idol of mine. His brain, his heart, his attitude -- I felt a great kinship from the very first time I met him,'' said Herbert Kelleher, the normally ebullient CEO of Southwest Airlines, choking back tears as he stood at the public memorial service at the Bentonville High School football stadium. About a thousand of Sam's friends showed up to say goodbye to a small-town merchant, a Rotary club ''Hi, neighbor, tell me about your family'' storekeeper who just happened to have 1,700 of them.