Sam Walton is the man responsible for taking a single dime store in a cotton town into Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world. Although he is the undisputed top merchant of the late twentieth century, he remained genuinely modest, but always sure if his ambitions and achievements. Mr. Walton stood out as a pioneering businessman who broke convention and showed that large discount stores could thrive in small, rural areas.
Days of youth
Samuel Moore Walton was born March 29, 1918 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. He was the first son of Thomas Walton (a farmer who later entered farm mortgaging), and his wife, Nancy Lee. He had one younger brother, James. Early in his life Walton and his family moved to Missouri, where he was raised. There, he grew up during the Great Depression and took up numerous small jobs in order to help his family which was struggling to make ends meet. Among other chores, he sold magazine subscriptions and delivered Columbia Daily Tribune newspapers on a paper route. He also milked the family cow, bottled the surplus and sold it to customers. He was a good student, became the youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri’s history while studying in the eighth grade in Shelbina, Missouri, and quarterbacked his high school football team.
He then went to the University of Missouri as a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet. During this time, he worked various odd jobs, including waiting tables in exchange for meals. He also joined the Zeta Phi chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, served as President of Burall Bible Class, and became a member of a well-known secret society on campus honoring the top senior men, and the national military honor society Scabbard and Blade. In MU, he graduated with a degree in economics in 1940, and was voted “permanent president” of the class.
Three days after graduating from college, Walton joined J. C. Penney, which was still a relatively small retailer, as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa. In anticipation of being inducted into the military for service in World War II, he worked at a DuPont’s 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, reaching the rank of Captain.
The first stores
After leaving the military, 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. In his store, he pioneered many concepts that became crucial to his success. Sam made sure the shelves were consistently stocked with a wide range of goods. In less than two decades, working with his younger brother, he came to own 15 Ben Franklin stores. Both he and his son John would later become accomplished pilots and log thousands of hours scouting locations and expanding the family business. But frustration over the management of the chain, in particular the decision to ignore Walton’s push to expand into rural communities, prompted him to strike out on his own.
The Empire Begins
In 1962 Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Arkansas, called the Wal-Mart Discount City store. Success was swift, as 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. Contrary to the prevailing practice of American discount store chains, Walton located stores in smaller towns, not larger cities. To make his model work, he emphasized logistics, particularly locating stores within a day’s drive proximity to Wal-Mart’s regional warehouses, and distributed through its own trucking service. Buying in volume and efficient delivery permitted sale of discounted name brand merchandise. By 1976 Wal-Mart was a publicly traded company with share value north of $176 million, and in 1991 Wal-Mart surpassed Sears, Roebuck & Company to become the country’s largest retailer.
Giving Back to the Society
Patrick Dwyer highlights the work of Sam Walton for the community and his contributions to the underprivileged, establishing Walmart Foundation in 1979. Along with his wife, he supported various charitable causes and was active in the First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville where he served as a Ruling Elder and a Sunday school teacher. He also made considerable financial contributions to the church.
Walton portrayed a humble image right up until his death. His vehicle of choice was a red 1985 Ford pickup. With his wife Helen, whom he married in 1943, he lived in the same house in Bentonville, Arkansas, since 1959. Over that last several years of his life, Walton suffered from two types of cancer: hairy-cell leukemia and bone marrow cancer. Sam Walton died on Sunday, April 5, 1992, of multiple myeloma, in Little Rock, Arkansas, and his remains are interred at the Bentonville Cemetery.