Arkansas Business Hall of Fame 2012: Jack Shewmaker

Jack Shewmaker
Former President/COO, Walmart
Little Rock

Not long after going to work for Sam Walton in 1970, Jack C. Shewmaker was asked by Walton to write a policy manual for the company.

Walton asked how long it would take to write. Shewmaker knew from having completed a couple of others that it would take six months; he told Walton he could do it in 90 days. Walton said he had 60.

Fifty-nine days later, all 360 pages of it were done. And since Shewmaker wrote it, you can be sure it embodied characteristics such as honesty, integrity and toughness — things Shewmaker possessed and needed as he helped set Walmart up to become the world’s largest retailer.

Born in Buffalo, Mo., in the middle of March 1938, Shewmaker grew up with two sisters, one older and one younger. He was a Cub Scout and then became a Boy Scout. He went to the prom with his high school sweetheart, Melba June Prosser, whom he would later marry in 1958.

His first job after marrying was at Reyco in Springfield, Mo., but he was a young man on the move always looking forward. He left Reyco and went to work at the Lawn Boy division of Outboard Marine as supervisor of warranty claims, but it didn’t take him long to see the division needed an education program. He pitched the idea and was selected to head up the program.

After that it was on to Montgomery Ward as catalog store manager, then Coast to Coast Stores as a district manager and then training director and eventually to Kroger where he was a general manager of a Kroger Family Center in La Porte, Ind., when he got a call from Walton. A lengthy conversation with Walton over cups of coffee in a Howard Johnson’s in Missouri took Shewmaker to Walmart as one of two district managers, starting him on the path to becoming vice chairman and chief financial officer.

Not that that happened overnight. Or easily. There were other encounters where Shewmaker’s drive and directness put him if not at odds with Walmart’s famous leader, at least on a different path.

Shewmaker had a love of systems and organization that Walmart needed. He committed to spending millions on satellite communications so that the general office in Bentonville, the distribution centers and the stores could quickly send data back and forth. Apparently Walton didn’t think much of the idea – or maybe it was that Shewmaker had made all the plans for the satellite system and committed the money without asking Walton first. This decision was something that got Shewmaker fired by Sam Walton and re-hired (by some accounts multiple times) in the same day. By the end of that day, Shewmaker still worked for Walton and Walmart was on its way to having a communications system that would deliver information about inventory and sales in what in those days was the blink of an eye. This initiative set Walmart up for decades of skyrocketing growth.

This was in the mid-1980s when no one else in retailing was doing such a thing. But it was the kind of innovative thinking that was encouraged in all Walmart associates in that era.

Another of the most innovative thoughts in Walmart history also came from Shewmaker. This one developed in 1974 and it began over competition about the price of 12-ounce cans of spray paint. Instead of trying to beat competitors with lower and lower sale prices, Shewmaker proposed “Everyday Low Prices.” That resonated then with shoppers and still does, with the company embracing the “EDLP” philosophy even today.

He also coined the company’s well-known term “Rollback.” He spurred Walmart to implement bar code standards at a time when they were mostly used on grocery products and Walmart didn’t sell groceries then.

But maybe more important than all that in Shewmaker’s rise to become president and chief operating officer in 1978 was his shaping of the “Walmart Culture” by personally setting a standard of ethics within the operation.

That carried over into his retirement in 1988. He remained on the Walmart board for 20 years. He already had started JAC’s Ranch, a purebred Angus cattle operation, and later was an executive retail consultant for Woolworths Limited of Australia along with companies in New Zealand, United Kingdom, Africa and Asia.

Some of Shewmaker’s proudest accomplishments came in supporting the education of young people. He was a benefactor and booster for Arend Arts Center at Bentonville High School, the Boy Scouts of America and NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC).

Shewmaker also was instrumental in the growth of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). In 1998, he led SIFE to commit to an aggressive international expansion that continues today to the point that SIFE is now active on 1,500 college and university campuses in 39 countries. He served as chairman of the organization in 1985-88, during which time the number of universities participating in SIFE increased by nearly 200 percent. He remained a member of the SIFE board and the executive committee into 2010.

He has been honored many times over the years, both for his business accomplishments and for his work in the community.

Discount Store News named him Discounter of the Year in 1981, Mass Market Retailer magazine named him Retailer of the Year in 1985 and in 1997 Discount Merchandiser named him as among the “10 Most Influential People in Mass Retail Today.” In 2007, he was inducted into the Retailing Today Hall of Fame.

SIFE and its students gave him the Eagle Club Award and Champion of SIFE Award in 1986, dedicated the Jack Shewmaker SIFE National Headquarters in 1989 and in 1990 inducted him into the SIFE Hall of Fame. In 1997, the organization also honored him with the Double Eagle Award and the Secretariat Award. He received the Global Champion of Award in 2004.

NWACC made him an honorary Associate of Entrepreneurial Leadership in 2001, dedicated the Shewmaker Center for Workforce Technologies in 2003 and dedicated the Shewmaker Center for Global Business Development in 2010. In 2005-09, he was honorary chair of the NWACC Foundation $16 million capital campaign and received a Quality of Life award from NWACC in 2005.

In 2009, in recognition of his work and support, Shewmaker received the Outstanding Philanthropic Family award from the Mercy Health Foundation of Northwest Arkansas.

He was recognized multiple times for his work with the Boy Scouts of America, including receiving the Scouts’ Silver Beaver Award in 2010.

Shewmaker received many honors from colleges and universities. He received from Drury University an honorary doctor of free enterprise in 2000 and a lifetime achievement award in 2007 from Drury’s Breech School of Business, an honorary doctor of laws degree from Flagler University, the 2008 Business Person of the Year Award from University of the Ozarks, the Distinguished American Citizen in 1984 from Harding University and an honorary doctor of business administration from Southwest Baptist University in 1985.

He remained active in the Northwest Arkansas community until his death in November 2010.

Shewmaker’s lifelong philosophy may be best summed up by an anonymous poem he often recited called “Don’t Quit.”

The poem closes with these lines: “So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit – It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.”