This is a riveting story full of inspirational and sometimes funny anecdotes about what they call the “rules of the road” of both Main Street and Wall Street, Sam Walton chronicles the inspiration, heart, and optimism that propelled him to lasso the American Dream. Click here to buy it on Amazon $5.97 paperback or $7.99 kindle
If I had to single out one element in my life that has made a difference for me, it would be a passion to compete.
It’s a story about believing in your idea even when maybe some other folks don’t, and about sticking to your guns. But I think more than anything it proves there’s absolutely no limit to what plain, ordinary working people can accomplish if they’re given the opportunity and the encouragement and the incentive to do their best.
I learned from a very early age that it was important for us kids to help provide for the home, to be contributors rather than just takers. In the process, of course, we learned how much hard work it took to get your hands on a dollar, and that when you did it was worth something. One thing my mother and dad shared completely was their approach to money: they just didn’t spend it.
Then I got to know Helen’s family, and listening to her father, L. S. Robson, was an education in itself. He influenced me a great deal. He was a great salesman, one of the most persuasive individuals I have ever met. And I am sure his success as a trader and a businessman, his knowledge of finance and the law, and his philosophy had a big effect on me. My competitive nature was such that I saw his success and admired it. I didn’t envy it. I admired it. I said to myself: maybe I will be as successful as he is someday.
Note: Another mentor for him
The principle behind this is simple: the best way to reduce paying estate taxes is to give your assets away before they appreciate. Note: Reminds me that Mark Shepard had his kids own part of his farm before it was anything other than a field.
It wasn’t lavish or exorbitant, and that was part of the plan—to keep the family together as well as maintain a sense of balance in our standards. HELEN WALTON: “It was great moneywise, but there was another aspect to it: the relationship that was established among the children and with the family. It developed their sense of responsibility toward one another. You just can’t beat that. Read more at location 197
Here’s the thing: money never has meant that much to me, not even in the sense of keeping score. If we had enough groceries, and a nice place to live, plenty of room to keep and feed my bird dogs, a place to hunt, a place to play tennis, and the means to get the lads good educations—that’s rich. Read more at location 212
We all love to fly, and we have nice airplanes, but I’ve owned about eighteen airplanes over the years, and I never bought one of them new. Read more at location 215
Note: So far I can say I’ve never bought a new car, yet I’ve bought more cars than I needed so still not so wise.
But sometimes I’m asked why today, when Wal-Mart has been so successful, when we’re a $50 billion-plus company, should we stay so cheap? That’s simple: because we believe in the value of the dollar. We exist to provide value to our customers, which means that in addition to quality and service, we have to save them money.
Mother must have been a pretty special motivator, because I took her seriously when she told me I should always try to be the best I could at whatever I took on. So, I have always pursued everything I was interested in with a true passion—some would say obsession—to win. I’ve always held the bar pretty high for myself: I’ve set extremely high personal goals.
Looking back on such boyhood episodes helps me to realize now that I’ve always had a strong bias toward action—a trait that has been a big part of the Wal-Mart story.
I worry that it seems like I’m bragging or trying to make myself out to be some big hero. It particularly bothers me because I learned a long time ago that exercising your ego in public is definitely not the way to build an effective organization. One person seeking glory doesn’t accomplish much; at Wal-Mart, everything we’ve done has been the result of people pulling together to meet one common goal—teamwork—something I also picked up at an early age.
Note: Reminds me of Ken Lay of Enron fame how he exercised his ego and put himself first. This I learned from the book “Give and Take” talking about givers and takers and Ken was a taker.
I guess I was just totally competitive as an athlete, and my main talent was probably the same as my best talent as a retailer—I was a good motivator.
It taught me to expect to win, to go into tough challenges always planning to come out victorious.
It never occurred to me that I might lose; to me, it was almost as if I had a right to win. Thinking like that often seems to turn into sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I learned early on that one of the secrets to campus leadership was the simplest thing of all: speak to people coming down the sidewalk before they speak to you.
“Sam is one of those rare people who knows every janitor by name, passes plates in church, loves to join organizations.
EZRA ENTREKIN, FORMER CIRCULATION MANAGER OF THE COLUMBIA MISSOURIAN: “We hired Sam to deliver newspapers, and he really became our chief salesman. When school started, we had a drive to get the kids in the fraternities and sororities to subscribe. And Sam was the boy we had do that because he could sell more than anybody else. He was good. He was really good. And dedicated. And he did a lot of other things besides deliver newspapers. In fact, he was a little bit scatterbrained at times. He’d have so many things going, he’d almost forget one. But, boy, when he focused on something that was it. Read more at location 336
He had been a barber in Odessa, Missouri, before he and his brothers started a variety store chain which had grown to around sixty stores by that time. I would talk with him about merchandising, how to do it, and how well it was working out for him. He took an interest in me, and later even offered me a job. Read more at location 346
Note: Kind of a mentor
I had a high school girlfriend whose father was a very successful salesman for General American Life Insurance Company, and I had talked to him about his business. Read more at location 349
Note: Another mentor or real life teacher
The deal was pretty straightforward—report to the JC Penney store in Des Moines, Iowa, three days after graduation, June 3, 1940, and begin work as a management trainee. Salary: $75 a month. That’s the day I went into retail, and—except for a little time out as an Army officer—that’s where I’ve stayed for the last fifty-two years. Maybe I was born to be a merchant, maybe it was fate. I don’t know about that kind of stuff. But I know this for sure: I loved retail from the very beginning, and I still love it today. Not that it went all that smooth right off the bat. Like I said, I could sell. And I loved that part. Unfortunately, I never learned handwriting all that well. Read more at location 357
Then, of course, the icing on the cake was when James Cash Penney himself visited the store one day. He didn’t get around to his stores as often as I would later on, but he did get around. I still remember him showing me how to tie and package merchandise, how to wrap it with very little twine and very little paper but still make it look nice. Read more at location 376
I worked for Penney’s about eighteen months, and they really were the Cadillac of the industry as far as I was concerned. But even back then I was checking out the competition. The intersection where I worked in Des Moines had three stores, so at lunch I would always go wander around the Sears and the Yonkers stores to see what they were up to. Read more at location 378
1945, I not only knew I wanted to go into retailing, I also knew I wanted to go into business for myself. My only experience was the Penney job, but I had a lot of confidence that I could be successful on my own. Our last Army posting was in Salt Lake City, and I went to the library there and checked out every book on retailing. I also spent a lot of my off-duty time studying ZCMI, the Mormon Church’s department store out there, just figuring that when I got back to civilian life I would somehow go into the department store business. The only question left was where we were going to set up housekeeping. Read more at location 404
Note: He loved it enough to read all the books about it
My naïveté about contracts and such would later come back to haunt me in a big way. Read more at location 434
But at the time I was sure Newport and the Ben Franklin had great potential, and I’ve always believed in goals, so I set myself one: I wanted my little Newport store to be the best, most profitable variety store in Arkansas within five years. I felt I had the talent to do it, that it could be done, and why not go for it? Set that as a goal and see if you can’t achieve it. If it doesn’t work, you’ve had fun trying. Read more at location 435
For all my confidence, I hadn’t had a day’s experience in running a variety store, so Butler Brothers sent me for two weeks’ training to the Ben Franklin in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
It was a real blessing for me to be so green and ignorant, because it was from that experience that I learned a lesson which has stuck with me all through the years: you can learn from everybody. I didn’t just learn from reading every retail publication I could get my hands on, I probably learned the most from studying what John Dunham was doing across the street.
Note: Today we can check out our competitions website
HELEN WALTON: “It turned out there was a lot to learn about running a store. And, of course, what really drove Sam was that competition across the street—John Dunham over at the Sterling Store. Sam was always over there checking on John. Always. Looking at his prices, looking at his displays, looking at what was going on. He was always looking for a way to do a better job. I don’t remember the details, but I remember some kind of panty price war they got into. Later on, long after we had left Newport, and John had retired, we would see him and he would laugh about Sam always being in his store. But I’m sure it aggravated him quite a bit early on. John had never had good competition before Sam.
I learned a tremendous amount from running a store in the Ben Franklin franchise program. They had an excellent operating program for their independent stores, sort of a canned course in how to run a store. It was an education in itself. They had their own accounting system, with manuals telling you what to do, when and how. They had merchandise statements, they had accounts-payable sheets, they had profit-and-loss sheets, they had little ledger books called Beat Yesterday books, in which you could compare this year’s sales with last year’s on a day-by-day basis. They had all the tools that an independent merchant needed to run a controlled operation. I had no previous experience in accounting—and I wasn’t all that great at accounting in college—so I just did it according to their book. In fact, I used their accounting system long after I’d started breaking their rules on everything else. I even used it for the first five or six Wal-Marts.
Note: What can or do people use today? Quickbooks? How can it be improved? Is it as thorough
At the very beginning, I went along and ran my store by their book because I really didn’t know any better. But it didn’t take me long to start experimenting—that’s just the way I am and always have been. Read more at location 467
Note: Learn to expire meant in your business! Every day every week every month
It was new and different—another experiment—and we really turned a profit on it. I paid off that $1,800 note in two or three years, and I felt great about it. I really didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who lost his shirt on some crazy ice cream machine.
As good as business was, I never could leave well enough alone, and, in fact, I think my constant fiddling and meddling with the status quo may have been one of my biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart.
But this store was ahead of its time too, self-service all the way, unlike the competition. This was the beginning of our way of operating for a long while to come. We were innovating, experimenting, and expanding. Somehow over the years, folks have gotten the impression that Wal-Mart was something I dreamed up out of the blue as a middle-aged man, and that it was just this great idea that turned into an overnight success. It’s true that I was forty-four when we opened our first Wal-Mart in 1962, but the store was totally an outgrowth of everything we’d been doing since Newport—another case of me being unable to leave well enough alone, another experiment. And like most other overnight successes, it was about twenty years in the making. Read more at location 638
Note: More experiments and a 20 year overnight success
Of course I needed somebody to run my new store, and I didn’t have much money, so I did something I would do for the rest of my run in the retail business without any shame or embarrassment whatsoever: nose around other people’s stores searching for good talent. That’s when I made my first real hire, the first manager, Willard Walker.
But he said I would get a percentage of the profits, and that appealed to me. When I went to quit TG&Y, the vice president said, ‘Remember, Willard, a percentage of nothing is still nothing.’ But I went ahead and took the job. Sam was down there every day from the time we started until the time we left. He rolled up his sleeves and worked every day until we built that store from scratch.
shelf brackets to hold the merchandise. Then I went somewhere to look at what Sterling Stores was doing—most everything I’ve done I’ve copied from somebody else.
I started raising money for the pavement, but it got real complicated, and in the end I decided I had better take my whipping, so I backed out of the whole deal and went back to concentrating on the retail business. I probably lost $25,000, and that was at a time when Helen and I were counting every dollar. It was probably the biggest mistake of my business career. I did learn a heck of a lot about the real estate business from the experience, and maybe it paid off somewhere down the line—though I would rather have learned it some cheaper way.
DAVID GLASS: “Two things about Sam Walton distinguish him from almost everyone else I know. First, he gets up every day bound and determined to improve something. Second, he is less afraid of being wrong than anyone I’ve ever known. And once he sees he’s wrong, he just shakes it off and heads in another direction.
Whatever money we made in one store, we’d put it in another new one, and just keep on going. Read more at location 740
Note: Re-investing the money into their own stores not the stock market or somebody else’s idea only what they controlled probably with a new best
Also, from Willard Walker on, we would offer to bring the managers we hired in as limited partners. If you had, say, a $50,000 investment in a store, and the manager put in $1,000, he’d own 2 percent.
Note: Letting managers buy into the store is a way to keep them involved and caring about the profits
By now, you know me. I began looking around hard for whatever new idea would break us over into something with a little better payoff for all our efforts. Read more at location 752
Note: To expand kept looking for opportunities by looking at what others were doing
And he took everything I said down on this yellow legal pad.
Note: Sam took lots of notes not just trusting his memory
CHARLIE CATE: “Sam had us send our sales report in every week, and along with it we had to send in a Best Selling Item. I mean we had to. What he was doing was teaching us to look for what’s selling all the time. You had to look because you had to send in this report every week, and if you reported that nothing was selling well, Mr. Walton would not be happy. He would think you weren’t studying your merchandise, and in that case he’d come study it for you. He’s been that way ever since I first met him in 1954.
Note: He wanted people to be aware of what was selling best which meant they had the truck when I was selling and take notice and then figure out why it would be the key
A SUCCESSFUL COMPANY: TEN RULES THAT WORKED FOR ME
One I don’t even have on my list is “work hard.” If you don’t know that already, or you’re not willing to do it, you probably won’t be going far enough to need my list anyway. And another I didn’t include on the list is the idea of building a team. If you want to build an enterprise of any size at all, it almost goes without saying that you absolutely must create a team of people who work together and give real meaning to that overused word “teamwork.” To me, that’s more the goal of the whole thing, rather than some way to get there.
these rules are not in any way intended to be the Ten Commandments of Business. They are some rules that worked for me. But I always prided myself on breaking everybody else’s rules, and I always favored the mavericks who challenged my rules.
So pay special attention to Rule 10, and if you interpret it in the right spirit—as it applies to you—it could mean simply: Break All the Rules.
RULE 1: COMMIT to your business. Believe in it more than anybody else. I think I overcame every single one of my personal shortcomings by the sheer passion I brought to my work.
RULE 2: SHARE your profits with all your associates, and treat them as partners.
Encourage your associates to hold a stake in the company. Offer discounted stock, and grant them stock for their retirement. It’s the single best thing we ever did.
RULE 3: MOTIVATE your partners. Money and ownership alone aren’t enough. Constantly, day by day, think of new and more interesting ways to motivate and challenge your partners. Set high goals, encourage competition, and then keep score. Make bets with outrageous payoffs.
RULE 4: COMMUNICATE everything you possibly can to your partners. The more they know, the more they’ll understand. The more they understand, the more they’ll care. Once they care, there’s no stopping them.
RULE 5: APPRECIATE everything your associates do for the business. A paycheck and a stock option will buy one kind of loyalty. But all of us like to be told how much somebody appreciates what we do for them. We like to hear it often, and especially when we have done something we’re really proud of.
RULE 6: CELEBRATE your successes. Find some humor in your failures. Don’t take yourself so seriously. Loosen up, and everybody around you will loosen up. Have fun. Show enthusiasm—always.
RULE 7: LISTEN to everyone in your company. And figure out ways to get them talking. The folks on the front lines—the ones who actually talk to the customer—are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there.
RULE 8: EXCEED your customers’ expectations. If you do, they’ll come back over and over. Give them what they want—and a little more. Let them know you appreciate them.
The two most important words I ever wrote were on that first Wal-Mart sign: “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” They’re still up there, and they have made all the difference.
RULE 9: CONTROL your expenses better than your competition. This is where you can always find the competitive advantage. For twenty-five years running—long before Wal-Mart was known as the nation’s largest retailer—we ranked number one in our industry for the lowest ratio of expenses to sales.
RULE 10: SWIM upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.
Here’s how I look at it: my life has been a tradeoff. If I wanted to reach the goals I set for myself, I had to get at it and stay at it every day. I had to think about it all the time. And I guess what David Glass said about me is true: I had to get up every day with my mind set on improving something.
Having now thought about this a lot, I can honestly say that if I had the choices to make all over again, I would make just about the same ones. Preachers are put here to minister to our souls; doctors to heal our diseases; teachers to open up our minds; and so on. Everybody has their role to play. The thing is, I am absolutely convinced that the only way we can improve one another’s quality of life, which is something very real to those of us who grew up in the Depression, is through what we call free enterprise—practiced correctly and morally.
A lot of people think it’s crazy of me to fly coach whenever I go on a commercial flight, and maybe I do overdo it a little bit. But I feel like it’s up to me as a leader to set an example. It’s not fair for me to ride one way and ask everybody else to ride another way. The minute you do that, you start building resentment and your whole team idea begins to strain at the seams.
As I’ve said, our country desperately needs a revolution in education, and I hope Wal-Mart can contribute at some level, if for no other reason than selfish ones.
You may have trouble believing it, but every time we’ve tested the old saying, it has paid off for us in spades: the more you give, the more you get.
Finally, a lot of folks ask me two related questions all the time. The first one is could a Wal-Mart-type story still occur in this day and age? My answer is of course it could happen again. Somewhere out there right now there’s someone—probably hundreds of thousands of someones—with good enough ideas to go all the way. It will be done again, over and over, providing that someone wants it badly enough to do what it takes to get there. It’s all a matter of attitude and the capacity to constantly study and question the management of the business.
The second question is if I were a young man or woman starting out today with the same sorts of talents and energies and aspirations that I had fifty years ago, what would I do? The answer to that is a little harder to figure out. I don’t know exactly what I would do today, but I feel pretty sure I would be selling something, and I expect it would be at the retail level, where I could relate directly to customers off the street. I think I’d study the retail field today and go into the business that offered the most promise for the least amount of money.