Sam's Show: The Spectacle of Wal-Mart's 1988 Shareholders' Meeting

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

A version of this article originally appeared in Arkansas Business on June 20, 1988. It is being republished as part of Arkansas Business' 30th anniversary issue. You can access the digital edition for free here.

It officially begins like most every other event at Fayetteville’s Barnhill Arena I’ve attended — with a prayer and the National Anthem. However, this invocation at the home of the Arkansas’ basketball Razorbacks doesn’t have any of the usual athletic allusions, and the Hog Wild Band doesn’t play the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Phrases like “bountiful profits” and “another prosperous fiscal year” are sprinkled throughout this moment of thanksgiving. And this rendition of our national anthem packs an even bigger patriotic punch than usual.

The buxom young woman who belts out the lyrics effortlessly from the spotlight on the concert stage is backed by a multimedia ensemble consisting of a trio of large video screens and a pre-recorded orchestra.

The crowd of 6,000-plus is taken from hushed reverence to cheers of enthusiasm as the singer holds several notes for what seems like minutes during the “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” finale.

Standing here in northwest Arkansas amid the appreciative gathering with sky blue “What’s Important Is You” banners hanging from the rafters and scoreboard, the messes is clear: God, America, Wal-Mart.

Welcome to the pageantry and spectacle of Sam Walton’s capitalism rally — the 1988 Wal-Mart Shareholders’ Meeting — touted as the largest shareholders’ meeting in America, if not the world.

Sitting alone at a table onstage flipping through a hodgepodge of papers, wearing a Wal-Mart ball cap is the man himself, reportedly the richest man in the U.S. of A.

Despite the fanfare going on around him, he’s not much on formalities. He prefers to be called Sam, not Mr. Walton. That apparently goes for his CEO David Glass on down to every store associate.

And he’s not much on talking with the media. We’ve all been issued some ground rules along with our fluorescent green press passes. There will be no one-on-one interviews with executive management.

That point is highlighted in the media kit memorandum, no doubt for the visually impaired among us. Sam supposedly hasn’t granted a personal interview in years. Too many requests to respond to, and it detracts from the team concept is the ruling.

Positioned here on the front row, a bold flight of fancy crosses my mind. How long would it take me to walk the few feet to the stage steps, jaunt up on the platform and plop down in an empty chair alongside Sam?



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