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

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

Cheerleaders hit the stage and lead cheers for retailing efficiency and even a couple directed toward the competition. One concerning Kmart ends with the line: “Roll ‘em up in toilet paper, kick ‘em to the moon.”

This seems to answer a volley fired by the Michigan-based retailer seen on a few car bumpers in Wal-Mart Land. The sticker reads: I live in Wal-Mart Country, and shop at Kmart.

A story of Wal-Mart employees helping out a Kmart damaged by an Alabama tornado downplays any thoughts of take-no-prisoners clash between the two corporate giants. Sam even credits Kmart and others for providing incentive to improve, in the form of competition — something he says Wal-Mart should always have to make it strive harder.

“We look at a competitor, and when they do better, we’re going to do better,” he states.

However, his story of Elk City, Okla., underscores a belief that if market conditions (in this case, the decline of the oil economy) will allow only one survivor, the survivor will be the fittest. Where there was once a TG&Y, Gibson and Kmart store, now only Wal-Mart operates.

After reading a glowing letter from an 80,000-share investor, he asks the crowd: “Do you feel like we’ve just begun? Can we be the best in the nation?”

“YES WE CAN,” comes the answer.

A Kansas native presents Sam with a “Think PIG (Profit Is Good)” button. “Put up with me a little bit more,” Sam appeals to the crowd after cajoling just one more associate up on stage to share her story.

His pleading tone is facetious. Does he really think this gathering of the Wal-Mart faithful is on the brink of a mass walkout? The response to his request accentuates the absurdity of that notion.

The unspoken answer is “Yes, Sam, we will indulge your capricious behavior” as smiles and laughter spread out across the arena. That rambling kind of guy named Sam Walton is off and running again.

Some big investors from back East sitting nearby have a curious expression on their faces, almost of disbelief. To them, the informality and borderline chaos of it all must seem out of character for a corporation that reports $15.9 billion in sales in FY88 and net income of $627.6 million.

During the slightly more business-like second hour of the meeting, CFO Paul Carter reports that the company is on track for $20.4 billion in sales during fiscal year 1989. That brings Sam to his feet once again as he interjects himself into someone else’s presentation.



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