Early Wal-Mart CEO Ron Mayer Remembers Sam Walton

Wal-Mart’s first chairman and CEO was a variety store chain employee from Kansas.

Ron Mayer was Wal-Mart’s chairman and CEO from 1974 to 1976. And although founder Sam Walton had served previously as de facto CEO, Mayer was the first to hold the title.

Mayer, now 77, worked for Wal-Mart from July 1, 1969, to June 30, 1976.

Walton met Mayer at a 1968 IBM seminar in New York and hired him away from his job as controller for A.L. Duckwall Stores in Abilene, Kan. Walton placed him in charge of Wal-Mart’s finance and administration department.

Thus began a relationship that evolved into friendship and lasted 23 years, until Walton’s death at age 74 in 1992.

Before Mayer agreed to join the staff at Wal-Mart at age 35, Walton took him by plane to visit Wal-Mart store Nos. 12 and 13 in Missouri.

As they flew in to land at an airport in Carthage, Mo., Walton’s plane nearly struck another aircraft. Walton pulled up his twin-engine Beech Baron just in time to avoid a student pilot’s plane that had pulled out in front of the runway.

“He ... said that was the closest to death he ever came. I can guarantee: It was the closest I’ve ever come,” Mayer said in a recent interview. “In retrospect, Wal-Mart could have ended right there if Sam had been injured or affected.”

Mayer began working with Sam Walton and Sam’s brother, Bud. “At that time, I felt like the discounting was the right route versus variety stores. I kind of felt like variety stores would be a dying business,” Mayer said. “I bought into what they wanted to do.”

Among Mayer’s accomplishments as a Wal-Mart executive, in addition to helping take the company public in 1972, was to lead the company’s transition to owning warehouses for storing products.

“We were just renting office space above an attorney’s office on a square,” Mayer said. “One of the first things I did was get the city of Bentonville to back us on tax-free bonds to build the first warehouse there.”

Mayer also became one of Sam Walton’s regular tennis partners, and the two played in tournaments together.

“He was very gracious in his calling of his opponents’ shots. I’ve never seen anyone who called the shots in favor of the opponent who wasn’t an outstanding person,” Mayer said.

Mayer said he invested in Wal-Mart first as an employee, even before the company went public, and after splits each share had cost him less than a penny.

Wal-Mart has changed quite a bit since Mayer’s days.

“At the time, we were trying to do business with a lot of local manufacturing and distribution places in the areas where we put in stores. Now everything’s made in China. That’s the difference that 40 years makes,” Mayer said.

“Oh, you know, who’s to judge what they call progress? It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”

Mayer left Wal-Mart in 1976 to become an owner of Ayr-Way, a discount store chain in Indianapolis that was sold to Target in 1982. He now lives in Carmel, Ind.