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

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

“What about it?” Sam prods the audience, leaving his folding chair and returning to center stage. “Can we do 21?”

“YES WE CAN,” once again comes the confident reply. Generating $600 million beyond existing revenue projections seems easy enough to this crowd.

That woman back at the check-in table set up to monitor the press was right. She advised me to take one of those souvenir hand fans. I forgot how hot Barnhill can get. A few thousand people feeding on the same, limited oxygen supply doesn’t help either.

Sam shed his jacket early, opting for the comfort of his short-sleeved shirt. A woman from Nowata, Okla., steps to the microphone and verbally puts him into the frying pan.

It seems her husband is a large man, 200-plus pounds, and he needs double-X or even triple-X sizes in clothing. Her Wal-Mart doesn’t carry any.

“Do you know where my husband has to go to buy clothes? Kmart!” she declares with a hint of distaste.

The statement prompts an audible groan from the crowd. Sam reacts with a pained expression and almost doubles over as if he’s been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. I bet Nowata gets some new sizes in menswear.

A few minutes later, Sam turns to J.L. “Bud” Walton, board member and SVP, and asks if his “bird hunting partner” has anything to say.

“Shouldn’t we be wrapping this up, Sam?” remarks Bud, his younger brother and Wal-Mart co-founder. “It’s almost noon.”

With this matter-of-fact contribution to the meeting, the proceedings wind down. The conclusion is a reaffirmation of the beginning: a multimedia presentation with John Wayne reading a patriotic poem to the strains of “America The Beautiful” while images of geographic splendor flash across the screens.

No one says it, but the thought is there: What a country! What a company.

Since Then ...

2014: The Walton brothers are gone now. Sam died in 1992. Bud followed three years later. But their retailing legacy lives on in what is now the largest corporation in the world.



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