One Nation Under Wal-Mart How retailing's superpower--and our biggest Most Admired company--is changing the rules for corporate America.
By Jerry Useem Reporter Associate Julie Schlosser Research Associate Helen Kim

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Bentonville, Ark., does not come to the world. The world comes to Bentonville. Whether you're a media mogul or a toy tycoon or King Tut, you drive your rent-a-car north on Walton Boulevard, past Smokin' Joe's Ribhouse and the Lube N' Go, and into one of the parking spots marked SUPPLIER. Don't expect a welcoming party. You make your way into a packed waiting room that reminds you of the Department of Motor Vehicles and have a seat. Thirsty from your trip? Coke machine in the back. Coffee? Ten cents in the box, please. Change machine over there if you need it.

The young buyer who emerges to greet you has a paycheck that's far smaller than yours, a name that's far less celebrated, and a budget of about $1 billion. He ushers you into a seven-by-ten-foot blue roomlet--one fluorescent light, one table, one photo of Mr. Sam. So, says the buyer in his unfailingly polite manner, how can Disney help Wal-Mart?

If you are an executive from Walt Disney, you've been here before. Your company sells movies, Pooh merchandise, and many other items to Wal-Mart. But when the buyer wonders whether Disney could make a short video involving Wal-Mart and a Disney character--you know, something to get the store associates fired up or perhaps to play on Wal-Mart's in-store TV network--you have to say no: Disney characters aren't allowed to be so crassly commercial. Well, that's okay. Jeffrey Katzenberg was down here, and his team at DreamWorks made the nicest video of Shrek doing the Wal-Mart cheer...

Not only was the Shrek video a huge hit, but Katzenberg has spent more time around Bentonville than anyone might suspect. "I've been there three times in the last 45 days," he confirmed recently. "I cannot tell you how much I respect and love the bare-essentials efficiency.... I'm flattered by the opportunity they've offered." If this strikes you as unconvincing, you haven't seen Katzenberg do the Wal-Mart cheer.

That an important studio boss like Katzenberg would answer calls of "Give me a W!" with fist raised might generate snickers among his peers. But nobody was laughing in 2001 when Wal-Mart--its stores bristling with displays of the green ogre--helped turn Shrek into the year's bestselling DVD. "Jeffrey figured out something his competitors didn't," says Warren Lieberfarb, the former Warner Home Video chief, who is known as the father of DVD. "Wal-Mart is the largest single revenue generator for Hollywood in the world."

And so, you see, there are two types of executives these days: those who have learned to play by Wal-Mart's rules, and those who still haven't learned the right answer to the cheer's closing question: "Who's No. 1?"

"The customer! Always! Whoomp!!!"

For most of Wal-Mart's 41 years, corporate America refused to acknowledge the retailer as one of its own. Wal-Mart was Podunk, U.S.A., Jed Clampett, Uncle Jesse's pickup--and worse yet, a discount store. This year its transfiguration is complete. Wal-Mart is FORTUNE's most admired company, marking the first time the world's biggest corporation--yes, it replaced Exxon Mobil atop the FORTUNE 500 last year--is also its most respected. You might say that Wal-Mart finally belongs in corporate America. More accurately, you could say corporate America belongs to Wal-Mart.

To understand this astonishing development, you need to grasp the difference between a big company--what Wal-Mart was at the time of Sam Walton's death in 1992, when it was about one-fifth its present size--and a company that has created a whole new definition of bigness. If conventional metrics, like Wal-Mart's $240 billion--plus in sales or its 1.3 million "associates," don't do the trick, these may help: