Wal-Mart at 50: A Not-So-Short History Of the World's Largest Retailer

by Eric Francis  on Monday, Jul. 2, 2012 12:00 am  

On Feb. 21, 1961, a 23-year-old student pilot named Howel Oliver stole a small plane from the airport in Springdale, radioed the airport in Fayetteville with a false name and plane ID number, and filed a flight plan to Dallas.

Minutes later the plane crashed, killing Oliver.

Even though it was insured, its stated value of just $6,000 suggests this wasn’t a particularly noteworthy aircraft. But the same couldn’t be said of its owner, a Bentonville businessman by the name of Sam Walton.

The popular image of Walton is that he started Wal-Mart from scratch and built a world power in retailing. But often overlooked is the fact that Sam Walton was a self-made business success, already 44 years old, before he and his brother opened the first Wal-Mart store 50 years ago this summer.

He was the biggest franchisee of the Ben Franklin chain of variety stores, after all, and had the resources to own a private plane. In 1961, he became the majority owner of the Bank of Bentonville, which has since evolved into Arvest Bank, the largest banking operation based in Arkansas and No. 91 in the country ranked by assets.

The lessons he learned during those early, successful years allowed him to build the most successful retail chain in history. And just like the times that he took his planes up to search for potential Wal-Mart sites, it was Mr. Sam himself who was behind the stick, deciding which direction to go.


• On July 2, brothers Sam and James L. “Bud” Walton open Wal-Mart Discount City in Rogers. That first store measures about 35,000 SF. Early marketing also spells the store’s name as WALMART, without a hyphen. In fact, according to Wal-Mart’s own history, the name “was presented in just about any font/style available to the printer.”

• The Kresge and Woolworth companies open their first Kmart and Woolco discount stores, and a Minnesota department store chain opens its first four discount stores under the Target name.

• Max Kohl opens the first Kohl’s Department Store in Brookfield, Wis.


• Sam Walton meets Donald G. Soderquist, then vice president of data processing for Ben Franklin stores of Chicago and later its president and CEO. It will be 17 years before Walton finally persuades Soderquist to join Wal-Mart as executive vice president.



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