Sam Walton: a true leader of the American retail business

Samuel Moore Walton, better known as Sam Walton, was an American businessman and entrepreneur who founded two of the most important retail stores in the US: Walmart and Sam’s Club.

Son of Thomas Gibson Walton and Nancy “Nannie” Lee Lawrence, he was born near Kingfisher, Oklahoma on March 29, 1918, where he lived with his parents on their farm until 1923. Sam’s father believed that agriculture would not generate enough income for the family to grow, so he decided to return to his old profession: mortgage broker. The Walton family -including another son, James, born in 1921- then moved from Oklahoma to Missouri. For several years, they moved from one place to another. While attending 8th grade in Shelbina, Sam became the youngest Eagle Scout in the state’s history. Later, as an adult, Walton received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America.

Walton excelled in athletics in high school, winning two state titles in basketball and football. As quarterback of the Columbia David H. Hickman High School, Walton never lost a game. While at Hickman, he also served as vice president of students in his third year and as president in his senior year. Academically, he performed well enough to become an honors student.

Growing up during the Great Depression of the early twentieth century, Walton did numerous tasks to help his family financially. He milked the cows of the family, bottled what was left and distributed it to customers. Later, he would deliver newspapers and sell magazine subscriptions. Upon graduation, he was deemed the “most versatile boy” of his generation.

After high school, Walton decided to go to college, hoping to find a better way to help support his family. He attended the University of Missouri and majored in economics, then obtaining a position with the Reserve Officers Training Corps. During this time, he held various jobs, including serving as a waiter in exchange for food. Also during his time in college, Walton joined the estimable Zeta Phi Theta fraternity. He was also part of the QEBH, the renowned secret society at the school. Upon graduation, he was voted “permanent president” of the class.

Walton joined J.C. Penney as management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa, three days after graduating from college. He earned $75 a month. He resigned in 1942 to the possibility of being enlisted in the Army to serve in World War II. In the meantime, he worked at a DuPont munitions plant near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Shortly afterwards, Walton joined the intelligence of the United States Army, supervising security at aircraft plants and camps of war prisoners. He did this at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. Finally he reached the rank of captain.

En 1945, after leaving the army, Walton decided that he wanted to open a department store that also sold assorted goods, such as groceries and cleaning products. With the help of his father in law, who loaned him $20,000 and his savings as a soldier, $5,000, Walton bought a grocery store in Newport, Arkansas. The store was a franchise of the Butler Brothers chain.

Sam Walton_a billionaire from Oklahoma_American businessman and entrepreneur_patrick dwyer_
Image courtesy of Janice Waltzer at

Then, Walton innovated many concepts that would prove crucial to his success. For example, he made sure that the shelves were always full of a wide range of products at low prices. He also closed his business later than other stores, especially during the Christmas season. He pioneered in the practice of purchasing entire lots from suppliers. This enabled him to offer savings to his customers, which resulted in increased sales.

The early popularity of the company exceeded his expectations, causing a rapid development and expansion of the chain from one state to another. The shareholders benefited from the success of Walmart.

Walton was often recognized for his business success and commitment to the community. A&E’s Biography told the story of Sam’s life in 1997, which was one of the most popular episodes of the series then.

On April 5, 1992, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush, the highest honor that the country grants its citizens. Walton, with Helena and the whole family, received in 1997 the prestigious National Patriots Award and later the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for contributing to build the economic strength of America, defending the liberties of the country, and generously helping the needs of others. In 1998, both Time magazine and CBS News recognized Sam Walton as one of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the twentieth century.

Sam was the richest man in the United States between 1985 and 1988. After his death in 1992, his fortune was divided among his sons, who gained control of a chain that employed 1.5 million people in 2004. Not bad for a guy who started selling the milk he got from the family’s cow!


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