Arkansas Business Hall of Fame 2012: Jack Shewmaker

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012 12:00 am  

Jack ShewmakerFormer President/COO, Walmart1938-2010

Jack Shewmaker
Former President/COO, Walmart
Little Rock

Not long after going to work for Sam Walton in 1970, Jack C. Shewmaker was asked by Walton to write a policy manual for the company.

Walton asked how long it would take to write. Shewmaker knew from having completed a couple of others that it would take six months; he told Walton he could do it in 90 days. Walton said he had 60.

Fifty-nine days later, all 360 pages of it were done. And since Shewmaker wrote it, you can be sure it embodied characteristics such as honesty, integrity and toughness — things Shewmaker possessed and needed as he helped set Walmart up to become the world’s largest retailer.

Born in Buffalo, Mo., in the middle of March 1938, Shewmaker grew up with two sisters, one older and one younger. He was a Cub Scout and then became a Boy Scout. He went to the prom with his high school sweetheart, Melba June Prosser, whom he would later marry in 1958.

His first job after marrying was at Reyco in Springfield, Mo., but he was a young man on the move always looking forward. He left Reyco and went to work at the Lawn Boy division of Outboard Marine as supervisor of warranty claims, but it didn’t take him long to see the division needed an education program. He pitched the idea and was selected to head up the program.

After that it was on to Montgomery Ward as catalog store manager, then Coast to Coast Stores as a district manager and then training director and eventually to Kroger where he was a general manager of a Kroger Family Center in La Porte, Ind., when he got a call from Walton. A lengthy conversation with Walton over cups of coffee in a Howard Johnson’s in Missouri took Shewmaker to Walmart as one of two district managers, starting him on the path to becoming vice chairman and chief financial officer.

Not that that happened overnight. Or easily. There were other encounters where Shewmaker’s drive and directness put him if not at odds with Walmart’s famous leader, at least on a different path.

Shewmaker had a love of systems and organization that Walmart needed. He committed to spending millions on satellite communications so that the general office in Bentonville, the distribution centers and the stores could quickly send data back and forth. Apparently Walton didn’t think much of the idea – or maybe it was that Shewmaker had made all the plans for the satellite system and committed the money without asking Walton first. This decision was something that got Shewmaker fired by Sam Walton and re-hired (by some accounts multiple times) in the same day. By the end of that day, Shewmaker still worked for Walton and Walmart was on its way to having a communications system that would deliver information about inventory and sales in what in those days was the blink of an eye. This initiative set Walmart up for decades of skyrocketing growth.

This was in the mid-1980s when no one else in retailing was doing such a thing. But it was the kind of innovative thinking that was encouraged in all Walmart associates in that era.

Another of the most innovative thoughts in Walmart history also came from Shewmaker. This one developed in 1974 and it began over competition about the price of 12-ounce cans of spray paint. Instead of trying to beat competitors with lower and lower sale prices, Shewmaker proposed “Everyday Low Prices.” That resonated then with shoppers and still does, with the company embracing the “EDLP” philosophy even today.

He also coined the company’s well-known term “Rollback.” He spurred Walmart to implement bar code standards at a time when they were mostly used on grocery products and Walmart didn’t sell groceries then.

But maybe more important than all that in Shewmaker’s rise to become president and chief operating officer in 1978 was his shaping of the “Walmart Culture” by personally setting a standard of ethics within the operation.



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