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.

1962

• 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.

1963

• 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.

• Walton’s bank investment grows with the purchase of a bank at Pea Ridge.

1964

• Walton opens two more Wal-Mart stores, in Springdale and Harrison. Walton invites David Glass, whom he was trying to woo away from J.W. Crank Co., to the grand opening of the Harrison store, which is such a fiasco that Glass turns Walton down cold. (From Glass: “Sam had brought a couple of trucks of watermelons in and stacked them on the sidewalk. He had a donkey ride out in the parking lot. It was about 115 degrees, and the watermelons began to pop, and the donkey began to do what donkeys do, and it all mixed together and ran all over the parking lot.”) Glass will finally join Wal-Mart in 1976 and become CEO in 1988.

• The company adopts a consistent logo.

1965

• The fourth Wal-Mart store opens.

• Jim Walton, youngest son of Sam and Helen and currently a member of the Wal-Mart board of directors and chairman of Arvest Bank Group, graduates from Bentonville High School.

• Sears Roebuck & Co. surpasses A&P to become the country’s largest retailer with sales of $6.4 billion.

1966

• Sam Walton attends an IBM training school to better understand the growing field of computers and to scope out talent to help automate his young company, which would become a pioneer in inventory tracking and just-in-time delivery.

1967

• A federal court rules that it is “patently clear” that Walton is running his first stores as separate corporations to avoid having to pay minimum wage. Taken together, their revenue is sufficient to make the company subject to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

1968

• In the fiscal year that ends Jan. 31, Wal-Mart’s 24 stores produce sales of $12.6 million and net income of almost $482,000, or 9 cents per share.

1969

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is incorporated on Oct. 31.

• Total sales reach $30.8 million for 32 stores, with the company adding, on average, two new stores per year.

• Wal-Mart completes construction of a 72,000-SF headquarters building in Bentonville and opens it in early 1970. Like everything else tied to the company, it is done with the bottom line in mind. Nothing fancy — not even carpeting, which Sam Walton thinks is a waste of money.

1970

• The company opens its first dedicated distribution center in Bentonville.

• On Oct. 1, Wal-Mart “goes public” with a small initial public offering of 300,000 shares priced at $16.50 per share.

1971

• Total sales for the fiscal year that ends in January top $44 million, triple the level of just three years earlier.

• ”I had no vision of the scope of what I would start, but I always had confidence that as long as we did our work well, and were good to our customers, there would be no limits to us.” — Sam Walton in a letter to Wal-Mart associates.

• In June, after the share price rises to $47, early investors are treated to the first of 11 two-for-one stock splits.

1972

• In an article datelined Bentonville, the Arkansas Gazette reports: “In 1945, two brothers, both in their mid-30s, borrowed $25,000 to buy a variety store at Newport. Today, Sam and J.L. Walton own a chain of discount stores that stretches across five states and earned a profit last year of $2,900,000.”

• In April, just 10 months after its first stock split, Wal-Mart stock is again trading above $47 and is split again.

• On Aug. 25, Wal-Mart stock begins trading on the New York Stock Exchange, opening at $32.50 and closing at $33.

1973

• Wal-Mart establishes its ties to the University of Arkansas with a gift of 2,500 shares of stock, worth about $85,000, the income from which was “to supplement the salaries of one or more full professors in the Marketing Department.” The gift gets second billing in the Arkansas Gazette, after a donation of $100,000 from the educational trust established by Robert E.L. Wilson.

• The first Wal-Mart store is replaced by a 56,000-SF model on another corner of the same intersection in Rogers.

• By the end of the year, Wal-Mart’s stock has dropped in value by more than half, closing the year at $13.38.

1974

• In addition to touting the company’s $167 million in sales and $6.1 million in earnings in the annual report, Sam Walton adds this note: “In 1974, we rebuilt and opened a 65,000 square foot store in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and a 30,000 square foot store in Berryville, Arkansas. Both had been completely destroyed. Jonesboro was devastated by a tornado in May 1973, and Berryville was destroyed by fire in December 1972.”

• Sam Walton retires. This lasts for one year before he unretires.

• The stock continues to struggle, closing at $9.50 on New Year’s Eve.

1975

• The acquisition of three Howard stores gives the chain a new location in southwest Little Rock and its first in North Little Rock. Howard-Gibco Corp. of Texarkana had shuttered those stores as “unprofitable.” Wal-Mart promises to reopen them within 60 days, and the Fort Smith location within 90. This brings the total number of Wal-Marts to 102 in eight states.

• Wal-Mart stock fights its way back to $23 and splits for the third time in August.

1976

• In this bicentennial year, Wal-Mart Chairman and CEO Ronald Mayer’s letter in the annual report lacks the warm fuzziness of later editions, or the cheerleader excitement of future shareholder meetings. But he does get down to business, noting that the just-ended fiscal year was the company’s most successful with $343 million in sales, an increase of 44 percent.

1977

• “Since our first store was opened in Bentonville, we have experienced twenty-seven consecutive years of sales and earnings growth,” Sam Walton writes in the annual report. Net sales were nearly $479 million and net income $16.5 million from the 153 stores in the system.

• Wal-Mart buys 16 Mohr-Value stores in Michigan and Illinois.

1978

• Whither comes a corporate culture? The title of Bethany E. Moreton’s essay, “It Came from Bentonville: The Agrarian Origins of Wal-Mart Culture,” pretty much says it all. The caption under a photo of an idyllic Ozark farmscape notes that during this era, “Small-scale farms supplied many of Wal-Marts’ early employees, both in management and in hourly positions.”

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. buys the Hutcheson Shoe Co. of Fort Smith.

1979

• It takes just nine months to build and open a 390,000-SF distribution center in Searcy, the company’s largest to date, which employs 200 people and serves some 100 stores. The previous year the company had announced earnings of $1.90 per share on sales of $870 million, driving its NYSE listing up 11 points, from 18 to 29.

• “Arkansas Empire Keeps on Growing” says the headline across the top of the Omnibus section front of the Arkansas Gazette. Reporter John Brummett sums things up nicely in the lead paragraph: “In the early 1960s, about a billion dollars ago ... .” The chain now has 237 stores and expects to hit $1 billion in sales soon.

• In a one-column, three-paragraph story at the bottom of a page gray with text, the Gazette reports that Mable Hardin of Little Rock has filed a federal lawsuit claiming “her former employer, Wal-Mart, discriminated against blacks” in hiring, promotion and job assignment. The suit is thrown out on March 4, 1981, because Hardin’s lawyer fails to provide a list of witnesses in the time allowed.

• Three vice presidents of Wal-Mart’s leading Arkansas competitor, Sterling Stores Inc., are killed in a Dec. 21 plane crash near Batesville. The deaths of Ben Johns, David N. McClanahan, Frank A. Bauer and company pilot Jack Starr proves to be the beginning of the end for Sterling Stores and its promising discount store division, Magic Mart. In 1983, the entire company is absorbed in a merger with Duckwall-Alco of Kansas.

1980

• During the decade of the 1970s, Wal-Mart has grown 2,000 percent.

• Another racial bias suit, also alleging sexual discrimination, is filed by Carl Williams in federal court. Williams claims that he was denied a job in the “encoding department” at the Searcy distribution center because he is male, and that his current job pays less because he is black. He seeks $25,000 in damages and an order from the court to prohibit discriminatory hiring practices at the retailer.

• On Dec. 10, a letter delivered to Wal-Mart headquarters threatens that 10 stores “would be blown up” unless the chain coughed up $1 million “in untraceable cash.” That same letter leads officials to a box of dynamite stashed in a Rogers Wal-Mart. The company informs the FBI, and a week later an agent arrests Earl W. Lakebrink of Camdenton, Mo., in a Fayetteville telephone booth as he is demanding delivery of the million bucks from Wal-Mart President Jack Shewmaker.

• Wal-Mart stock is split, two-for-one, in December. One hundred shares purchased at the IPO in 1970 have grown to 1,600 shares.

1981

• Wal-Mart has just closed out a huge year, reporting more than $1.6 billion in sales for the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31, 1981, an increase of 32 percent over the year-earlier period, and $55.7 million in net income, a 35 percent jump. Per-share income is $1.73 in 1980, compared with $1.34 the year earlier. Walton credits the success to, among other things, $120 per SF in sales productivity, a 12 percent increase in comparable store sales and opening 54 new stores.

• Another competitor goes the way of the dodo as Wal-Mart exchanges almost $13 million in stock to absorb 92 Kuhn’s-Big K stores in a merger.

• Clarence Archer is hired to establish Wal-Mart’s pharmacy division. When he retires 18 years later, the division has 2,200 in-store pharmacies, five dedicated warehouses for pharmaceuticals and a staff of 200 at headquarters. By 2006, the company’s 3,500 pharmacies are creating $11 billion in revenue.

• The company updates its logo to simple block letters.

1982

• May’s sales of $284 million represent a 56 percent increase over May 1981.

• Wal-Mart announces another stock split in June, its fifth in 11 years.

• Sam and Helen Walton show more love for the University of Arkansas, announcing “substantial donations” will be made during the next seven years to help finance a combined performing arts and business conference center on the Fayetteville campus. The Waltons — along with another Arkansas power couple, Jack and Mary Anne Stephens — are also named recipients of the Fulbright College Medallion from the university’s J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences, for their services to the college’s advancement.

• Sam Walton, now 64, is treated for leukemia.

• Dun & Bradstreet declares Wal-Mart “one of the five best-managed companies of 1982,” ranking it with IBM, Anheuser-Busch, Bristol-Meyers and Hospital Corp. of America. D&B cites “its abiding faith in detailed, grassroots management [which] led its industry in every measure of profitability.”

1983

• In an Arkansas Gazette feature story on country stores in rural Arkansas towns like Parthenon (Newton County), Clear Springs (Pike County) and Gilbert (Searcy County), one owner blames their decline on an inability to compete with supermarkets. They ain’t seen nothin’ yet: Five years later, the first Wal-Mart Supercenter, combining grocery and general merchandise, opens in Missouri.

• The first Sam’s Wholesale Club opens in Midwest City, Okla.

• Wal-Mart stock, trading in July at more than $81 a share, is split for the sixth time.

• Though Wal-Mart officials don’t address the issue publicly, a move in Congress to restrict access to tax-exempt bonds, including barring any one corporation from obtaining more than $40 million in financing using them, raises concerns about how that might impact the giant retailer, which had, the Gazette reported, “relied heavily on tax-exempt bonds” when building new stores and distribution centers.

• Wal-Mart acquires Woolco Stores and initiates its “People Greeter” program.

1984

• The chain once again breaks its own records with sales exceeding $6.4 billion and net income of $270.8 million. Those represented year-to-year increases of 37 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

• On the recommendation of UA President Ray Thornton, the university’s board of trustees spends $2 million to buy stock in Walton Enterprises, an investment firm owned by various Walton family members, trusts and corporations, and which holds more than a third of Wal-Mart’s common stock. Income from the investment is dedicated to the new performing arts and business conference center.

• Worth $2.3 billion at age 66, Sam Walton is the second-richest man in the country after Gordon Peter Getty, scion of the Getty Oil family and worth $4.1 billion, according to Forbes. Walton is not pleased by the publicity and even calls into question the veracity of the claim, declaring: “Whatever I own may just be some Wal-Mart stock, see, and you can’t spend that.”

1985

• Another year, another record: Wal-Mart’s sales reached $8.5 billion in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 1986. Net income for the year is reported to be $327.5 million.

• Sam Walton, according to a New York Times News Service article, is “upset about the flood of imports, and he is aiming to do something about it.” Thus he asks his 3,000 suppliers in a February letter to “buy more American goods.” But by October Walton is waving a white flag, at least in the face of a flood of imported textiles, putting garments made overseas (or assembled in the U.S. from cloth made overseas) in his stores.

• As has become almost routine, Wal-Mart stock is split in October. An investor who bought 100 shares for $1,650 at the IPO in 1970 now has 12,800 shares worth almost $320,000.

• Patricia Coker, who was fired from her assistant store manager job over alleged “fraternization” with co-workers, files a federal class action suit against Wal-Mart and three store employees, claiming her First Amendment right to free association had been violated. She asks for a total of $600,000 in damages.

1986

• With Sam Walton’s likely retirement a hot topic, speculation begins as to who will succeed the Wal-Mart founder. Leading candidates are two familiar names within the chain: 50-year-old president David Glass (“sharp in finances, a good listener, subtly demanding”) and 48-year-old CFO Jack Shewmaker (“a strategist, an innovator, and an organizer”).

• Walton tops the Forbes list of richest Americans with an estimated worth of $4.5 billion.

• Sell! At least, that’s Financial World magazine’s advice regarding Wal-Mart stock, which it calls “overvalued.” This opinion is pooh-poohed by a Little Rock broker for E.F. Hutton, who claims “they’ve been saying that for years about Wal-Mart” and it had never proved true.

• A decision to remove certain magazines from its shelves, including some rock ’n’ roll publications aimed at youths, results in criticism of Wal-Mart by literary, library and free speech groups. Responding to an American Library Association letter, President and COO David Glass says it is a standard policy to review merchandise periodically for “any items that we believe, in our opinion, to be offensive to our customers.”

1987

• Sam’s Club proves to be just as efficient a competitor in the wholesale market as its bigger sibling is in the retail market as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. buys out the 21-store Super Saver Wholesale Warehouse Club Inc., eliminating one of Sam’s Club’s competitors in one fell swoop.

• How big a deal is a stock split? In announcing another one, the company’s eighth, at the annual shareholders’ meeting in June, Vice Chairman and CFO Jack Shewmaker tells shareholders that a Vietnam veteran’s widow found in a closet the 200 shares her husband had bought in 1970. Factoring in the seven splits since they were issued, she now held 40,000 shares worth more than $1 million. (In fact, he understated her fortune, which would have been more than 50,000 shares worth some $1.7 million.)

• Black Monday. The Dow plunges more than 500 points. Sam Walton, the nation’s richest man, sees the worth of his Wal-Mart stock shrink by $1.5 billion overnight. “It’s paper, anyway,” he tells The Associated Press. “It was paper when we started and it’s paper afterward.” Of course, he’s still worth $4.8 billion — on paper.

1988

• While maintaining the title of chairman of the board, Sam Walton hands over day-to-day operation of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to David Glass, the company’s president and COO. This ends a good two years of speculation over whether Glass or Jack Shewmaker, vice chairman and CFO, will be tapped for the top job. Shewmaker retires instead — at the ripe old age of 49.

• Joe Chapelle, director of the newly created USA Division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., announces the goal of removing all imported items from the shelves of American stores, while acknowledging it will be difficult to replace some items, especially those with high domestic labor costs, without raising prices.

• With Sam Walton refusing to give a deposition, either in person or by videotape, in a slip-and-fall case filed by Andrew Carrizales, a Texas judge orders the company fined $1 million per day. After Walton fails to appear for a scheduled deposition, the judge orders the company to pay an $11.55 million fine; however, that judge loses a re-election bid and his successor vacates the fine the following month.

• Not all that springs from Wal-Mart roots grows into full flower. A year into its much-hyped Hypermart USA experiment, even though CEO David Glass says the company is “having fun with it,” the four Texas stores aren’t growing at the expected pace, according to industry analysts.

1989

• Who goes on vacation and wants to visit a corporate HQ? Wal-Mart customers, apparently. An influx of tourists to Bentonville prompts the company to plan a visitor’s center in Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store on the town square. City tourism officials are delighted and one sums up the appeal as “Everybody knows somebody who works for Wal-Mart.”

• Having ascended to the top of the command structure at the nation’s third-largest retailer, you’d think David Glass would be enjoying the high life. Instead he tells the Gazette that there’s still a lot to do to ensure the continued success of the company, which he describes as “plodding along” at 20 percent year-over-year sales increases. Meanwhile, the paper notes, his humble office furnishings wouldn’t look out of place at a used car dealership.

• Adweek gives Wal-Mart an “A” grade in advertising, despite the fact the company isn’t even in the top 100 for advertising expenditures. In fact, its advertising bill amounts to just 0.2 percent of its sales. “Wal-mart’s marketing is bare bones,” Adweek notes, but “you can’t argue with success.”

1990

• In a letter sent to employees, Sam Walton announces he is being treated in Houston for bone cancer. He’s reported to be in good spirits, though, and even pays a visit to a Houston-area Sam’s Wholesale Club between treatments.

• Less than 30 years after he founded the chain with his brother, one of Sam Walton’s more audacious predictions comes true as Wal-Mart tops $1 billion in income for the first time. The deed is done with $25.8 billion in sales, and it drives per-share income up to $1.90. And this all happens during a year in which the company increases its workforce by 20 percent.

• Stock prices soar to more than $58 after Wal-Mart announces another stock split at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Fayetteville. The move boosts the total number of Wal-Mart stock shares to more than 1.1 billion. An investor who bought 100 shares of IPO stock 20 years earlier and held them now has 51,200 shares worth almost $3 million.

• With the summit of the retail trade in its sights, Wal-Mart sharpens its focus on the grocery trade by purchasing the country’s sixth-largest grocery distributer, McLane Co. of Texas, which has projected annual sales of $3 billion and operates in 11 states.

1991

• With its founder fighting cancer, Wal-Mart completes its gradual ascent to the top of its niche, overtaking both Kmart and perennial frontrunner Sears to become the nation’s largest retailer.

• Remember the David Glass comment about “plodding along” at 20 percent growth? Well, do that for 20 years in a row and you’re a Wall Street darling. That was the assessment of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, which declared: “We don’t know of another major company offering such substantial growth prospects.”

• The winning streak that started with $1 billion in income and was followed by taking over the top retailer spot continues with a record high price for Wal-Mart stock. It ends the year at a split-adjusted price of $58.88, thanks to a $2.25 jump on Dec. 30.

1992

• With the 800-seat auditorium in Wal-Mart’s headquarters filled to capacity, President George Bush presents the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, to Sam Walton on March 17. The president tells the crowd of Wal-Mart employees, “The story of Sam Walton is an illustration of the American dream.”

• Sam Walton dies on April 5 at age 74, earning a front-page banner headline in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Less than a month after entering the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hospital in Little Rock, the Wal-Mart founder succumbs to bone cancer. At the time of his death his company has more than 2,000 stores and 380,000 employees. Wal-Mart President and CEO David Glass declares “we have lost more than our chairman and founder ... we have lost a friend.”

• Two months after his death, Sam Walton is on the cover of Time magazine: “How Sam Walton Got Rich: The wit and wisdom of America’s favorite shopkeeper.”

• The trade publication Sports Trend announces that Wal-Mart has assumed the mantle of nation’s top sporting goods retailer, with $1.3 billion in sales, surpassing Kmart.

• The company logo is updated again, with a star replacing the hyphen.

1993

• Following its established practice of splitting stock when it exceeds $50 per share in value, Wal-Mart announces a two-for-one deal that brings the total number of outstanding shares to almost 2.3 billion. The news sends the stock’s value up by $3.25, to $62.63 on the New York Stock Exchange. It is the company’s 10th stock split.

• A Faulkner County judge finds that Wal-Mart’s below-cost pricing on prescription drugs “injured competition” and violated the state’s Unfair Practices Act, ruling in favor of three local pharmacies that had sued the retail giant. Wal-Mart appeals to the state Supreme Court.

• The Democrat-Gazette profiles 68-year-old Elinor Blair of North Little Rock, who sells handmade quilts to supplement her modest Social Security income. Blair, who learned the craft at her grandmother’s knee, says cheaper imported quilts are hurting her: “If they can go ... to Wal-Mart and get one for $40 ... they won’t buy from us.” That week the company says it will not reorder the Chinese quilts, citing poor quality.

1994

• In the company’s annual report, Wal-Mart’s top brass praise associates for helping achieve a $12 billion sales increase despite a tough year and tout commitment to equal employment opportunity and being as environmentally friendly as possible. But the first word in the report comes from husband-and-wife greeters Dave and Rita from Glenwood Springs, Colo., who say “[We] hope you will enjoy reading this annual report.”

1995

• Wal-Mart co-founder James L. “Bud” Walton, Mr. Sam’s brother, suffers an abdominal aneurism while on a Caribbean fishing vacation. He dies at age 73 during surgery after being flown from the island of St. Maarten to a Miami hospital.

• In U.S. District Court, a unanimous jury awards $50 million to Peggy Kimzey in her sexual harassment suit against Wal-Mart. Kimzey says she had been subjected to lewd comments and unwanted advances while working in a Missouri store. Wal-Mart says it will appeal the verdict.

• Jonathan Fleck of Minnesota strikes a deal with Wal-Mart to sell Makin’ Bacon, a microwave oven bacon-cooker invented several years earlier by his 8-year-old daughter, Abbey. During the next 10 years, some 1.25 million are purchased by Wal-Mart shoppers.

1996

• Partnering with Microsoft, Wal-Mart prepares to launch its first online shopping website. Through it, customer orders will be forwarded to Wal-Mart’s suppliers, who will ship the articles themselves, with the retailer as the middleman. Meanwhile, Kmart and Sears mainly use their websites to direct customers to brick-and-mortar stores.

• After 99 consecutive quarters of growth — that’s almost 25 years — Wal-Mart finally sees a year-over-year decline in its earnings. Net income in the fourth quarter of 1995 is $942 million, a 9 percent drop from the $1.3 billion in the same quarter in 1994. Rating service Moody’s follows this news a week later with a downgrade of Wal-Mart’s credit to Aa2.

• Responding to analyst reports that its stock is undervalued, Wal-Mart increases its investment in a buyback program to $200 million, a one-third jump. By November, the company has increased the buyback amount to $400 million.

• Wal-Mart enters the German market by buying 21 stores from the Wertkauf hypermarket chain. Less than a year later, Wal-Mart will buy 74 more stores from another German retailer, Interspar.

1997

• Wal-Mart surpasses $100 billion in annual sales on Jan. 12 and posts more than $2.7 billion in net income for the fiscal year that will end that month. The sales milestone comes three years sooner than Sam Walton had predicted in 1991.

• Wal-Mart stock is added to the Dow-Jones Industrial Average.

• Ruling that Wal-Mart had violated the Ontario Labour Relations Act ahead of a unionization vote, a Canadian court approves a union for a store in Windsor, Ontario. It’s the first time in the company’s 35-year history that it will have to deal with a unionized workforce at one of its locations.

• Having taken on retail, groceries and sporting goods, Wal-Mart takes aim at the gasoline market. In partnership with Gary-Williams Energy Corp. of Denver, it opens a gas station at its store in Rogers. It’s the first major retailer to take this step.

• Wal-Mart introduces a 401(k) retirement plan for its workers. Available to employees who’ve been there a year and put in 1,000 hours — about 20 hours a week, so even part-timers qualify — it offers a range of options from company stock to mutual funds. Trading in the mid-$30 range at the time, Wal-Mart sets aside 10 million shares for the 401(k) program.

1998

• Remember that mid-$30 Wal-Mart stock? Well, it’s been on a 14-month tear, gaining 127 percent and culminating with a $50 per share value. Happy are the Wal-Mart associates who ticked the “company stock” option while signing up for their 401(k) just seven months (and $13 a share) ago.

• In July, the retailer announces that it will call its new chain of grocery stores Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets and opens prototypes in Sherwood and Benton. These smaller (by comparison) operations bolster the 473 Supercenters that are already selling groceries across the country. By the end of the year, Wal-Mart is the nation’s No. 2 seller of groceries.

1999

• It’s Christmas in Bentonville! Wal-Mart overtakes Toys “R” Us as the nation’s largest seller of, well, toys, seizing a 17.4 percent share of the market. That’s only about a half-percentage point greater than the toy-centric chain’s share, but it marks a tipping point in a long-running battle that saw Toys R Us closing stores and cutting inventory in an effort to compete.

• With a mind toward expanding its presence in Europe, Wal-Mart surprises the business world by offering $10.8 million to British retailer ASDA Group in exchange for its 229 “hypermarkets.” Buying Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain doubles Wal-Mart’s international sales to some $25 billion.

• How fast can you turn that around? A fire causes extensive smoke damage to an Indiana Wal-Mart, rendering the entire inventory a loss. The store is emptied, cleaned, repaired and restocked and reopens for business in just six days.

• In April, Wal-Mart stock splits for the 11th and last time (to date). One hundred of the original shares purchased for $1,650 in 1970 would have grown to 204,800 shares worth more than $9 million.

2000

• David Glass steps down as CEO to take up a board position, and the reins are handed over to H. Lee Scott, a man Glass had hired away from a trucking contractor to run Wal-Mart’s fleet almost two decades before. In the company’s annual report, Scott praises the strides made by the company’s International Division and notes, “We still have a tremendous amount of work to do in some of our new and emerging markets, but the lessons will make us better able to serve our customers in the future.”

2001

• Grocery sales reach $56 billion, making Wal-Mart the nation’s largest food retailer.

• In June, six women file an employment discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart in a San Francisco federal court. It is certified as a class-action case in 2004, covering 1.5 million women who have worked at the retailer and making it the largest class-action suit in history. Wal-Mart appeals the class-action status and in 2011, the United States Supreme Court rules that the plaintiffs do not constitute a class.

2002

• Forty years after its founding, Wal-Mart ascends to the top of Fortune magazine’s list of largest American businesses. With $220 billion in revenues for 2001, it surpasses oil giant Exxon Mobile with $212.9 billion. The other also-rans in the Top Five are General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and General Electric.

• From the annual report: “One morning last September, Shawn Saphore, assistant manager of Store 1591 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, climbed onto the roof in a rainstorm and refused to come down until Associates and customers raised $5,000 for the victims of the September 11 tragedy. The citizens of Harrisburg met the challenge so quickly that he upped the ante to $10,000 before crawling into a sleeping bag to brave a soggy 36-degree night. Cold, damp, but ecstatic, Shawn came down the next evening after learning the community had chipped in nearly $13,000.”

2003

• An essay on Wal-Mart’s impact on global logistics in the transport of trade goods notes, “In a 2003 Fortune article Wal-Mart is described as ‘the company that almost singlehandedly made the bar code ubiquitous by demanding 20 years ago that suppliers use it.’” A report that same year at the Salon.com website notes a hacktivist group called Re-Code.com is providing print-your-own Wal-Mart barcodes so you can put a lower-priced item’s code on more expensive goods. Salon notes that the creators call it “satire” while Wal-Mart calls it “an incitement to theft and fraud.”

2004

• The New York Times reports that some 10 percent of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores lock in their overnight employees for both crime- and loss-prevention reasons, raising questions of employee safety in the event of emergencies. By the time the article is published, the company has changed the policy to ensure a night manager with a key is always present at those stores.

• At the end of the year, Wal-Mart employs more than 1.5 million people worldwide, and anticipates creating 100,000 new jobs during the coming year.

2005

• As of January, more than 1,500 Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs have opened outside the United States.

• A Wal-Mart investor who bought 100 shares of company stock for $1,650 when it first became available in 1970 and then just sat on them would have seen them grow by 2000 to 204,800 shares worth about $11.25 million. And 100 shares of stock purchased in 1980 for $3,350 and held 15 years would be worth about $340,000. Growth has since slowed: 100 shares bought in 1990 for about $4,500 and held 15 years would be worth about $20,000

• Wal-Mart closes a unionized store in Quebec because the union demanded a contract that required 30 new hires, representing a 15 percent payroll increase. It is the first time since coming to Canada 11 years previously that Wal-Mart, by then that nation’s largest retailer, has permanently closed a store there.

• Wal-Mart responds to victims of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast so quickly and efficiently that one economist later suggests that the company deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

2006

• With sales of more than $300 billion a year, Wal-Mart has revenue larger than that of Switzerland.

• Wal-Mart gives up on Germany, where ingrained competition proves too strong. The retreat costs Wal-Mart $863 million.

• Worldwide, so many people shop at Wal-Mart that this year, it’s estimated, 7.2 billion people will go to a Wal-Mart store. Earth’s population is only 6.5 billion.

• Already one of the nation’s leading pharmacies in terms of retail prescription drug sales, Wal-Mart introduces a $4 price point for generic prescription drugs. Many other retail chains follow suit.

2007

• The group Human Rights Watch issues a report claiming Wal-Mart used numerous tactics, some of which the group said were illegal, to prevent employees from organizing unions. Such tactics are said to include monitoring people believed to be union supporters and banning talk of unions in stores. Wal-Mart dismisses the report as “pro-union” and says associates have the right “to a free and fair unionization vote through a private, government-sponsored process.”

• After a 2005 discussion on global warming with scientists and environmentalists, CEO H. Lee Scott announces Wal-Mart will embrace compact fluorescent light bulbs in a big way. “The environment,” Scott says, “is begging for the Wal-Mart business model.” Suppliers hesitate, but the company stands behind its goal to sell 100 million a year by 2008. Wal-Mart accomplishes this goal by October 2007.

2008

• In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Wal-Mart is still showing month-to-month sales gains. Why? Company officials credit slowed growth in new stores, augmented by a program to remodel existing stores. CEO H. Lee Scott says of the economy, “This is the kind of environment that Sam Walton built this company for.”

• Having conquered retail, grocery, sporting goods and toys, what’s next for Wal-Mart? Classified ads, apparently, but an online venture started by the company in partnership with Oodle.com runs into a problem when ads from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette turn up there without the paper’s permission.

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. adopts a new logo for its flagship stores, one that dispenses with the hyphen: Walmart. The corporate name, however, remains hyphenated.

2009

• With Michael T. Duke succeeding H. Lee Scott as president and CEO, Wal-Mart enters the market in Chile through its acqusition of a majority stake in D&S S.A., and sales surpass $400 billion for the first time.

• When H. Lee Scott retires as president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., his environmental initiatives garner some of the highest praise. Wal-Mart has cut its energy use, insisted on reduced packaging from its suppliers and increased the efficiency of its trucking fleet by 25 percent. Mike Duke succeeds Scott in the top post.

• Having established firm dominance in the bricks-and-mortar world, Wal-Mart sets its sights on Amazon.com’s place as the No. 1 online retailer. In fact, the company even takes a page from Amazon’s playbook, deeply discounting books and allowing other retailers to sell online via the company’s website. An analyst says this could be a “tremendous bonanza” for Wal-Mart, which had just $1.74 billion in online sales the year before. Amazon, on the other hand, posts $15 billion through the first three quarters of 2009.

2010

• Writing in the company’s annual report after his first year as president and CEO, Michael T. Duke says, “I was continually impressed with Wal-Mart’s opportunity to lead on big issues in the world. ... We live at a time and in a world that I believe truly calls out for Wal-Mart and the work that our two million associates do every day.” By the way, that employee count is equal to about two-thirds of the population of Wal-Mart’s home state, according to the 2010 Census.

2011

• Rosalind Brewer, 49, is promoted to CEO of Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club division, becoming the first woman and the first African-American to hold the CEO position at a Wal-Mart business unit.

• After holding the top spot in the Fortune 500 rankings from 2002 through 2009, then losing it to Exxon Mobil in 2010, Wal-Mart held onto the No. 1 position for the second consecutive year with $421.85 billion in earnings. That was more than the earnings of No. 3 Chevron Corp. ($196 billion) and No. 4 ConocoPhillips ($184 billion) combined.

• Designed by legendary architect Moshe Safdie and filled with some of the most significant artistic works from the 1700s to the present day, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opens in Bentonville on 11/11/11. The brainchild of Alice Walton, who donated from her personal collection as well as overseeing a long acquisition process (that raised eyebrows and hackles among many in the art world), it is the first major museum focusing on American art to open in 50 years. It receives rave reviews.

2012

• The New York Times reports that Wal-Mart de Mexico, the largest foreign subsidiary of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has for years orchestrated a campaign of bribery among Mexican officials in order to obtain permits to build new stores. Questions are raised about whether the company broke both Mexican and American laws by doing so, and calls are made for a U.S. government investigation.

• In its 50th anniversary year, Wal-Mart ranks No. 16 in Forbes magazine’s Global 2000 ranking of public companies (behind mostly oil companies and banking interests), though it is second in terms of overall sales and is the world’s largest private employer with 2.2 million associates. Its current annual report shows company notched $15.8 billion in earnings on net sales of $443.9 billion for the fiscal year that ended in January. Since 1962 it has returned $101 billion to shareholders.

 

 

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