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

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?

Maybe this gutsy move might win him over for an Arkansas Business profile. That is, if I can complete a sentence before the security guards pounce on me.

They’re not those uniformed guys sometimes described as rent-a-cops. They’re the suit-wearing, Secret Service types — the ones with the earpiece and cord that disappears under the lapel and connects with a hidden walkie-talkie.

It’s hard to miss them stationed around the arena. They don’t seem to blink, and they always seem to be looking right at you, reading your thoughts. Looking into your soul.

Maybe it’s not such a good idea to rush the stage. Sam would probably decline an interview. Besides, I’m not sure if my expense voucher will cover bail either.

This occasion won’t allow the media to pose any questions for Sam & Company, but it does provide an opportunity to observe him and his crew in action — up close and personal.

Sam sets the tone for the first hour of the meeting — his hour — when he walks onto the runway still shuffling through his papers and announces: “I wonder what kind of agenda we’re gonna end up with?”

Until about 11 a.m., the shareholders’ meeting is a free-wheeling affair with Sam at its hub. And for him, audience participation is a must.

Some investors are recognized for the distance they traveled to get to Fayetteville. Some come from faraway lands like Spain, France and even a mythical land of sun and surf called California.

But these are the exceptions.

The vanguard of attendees is investors and associates from less exotic places, communities like Warrensburg, Mo.; Rockport, Texas; Malvern, Ark.; Johnson City, Tenn.; Lake Geneva, Wis.; Tuskegee, Ala.; and New Iberia, La.

“North Carolina. Murphy, North Carolina,” yells a high-pitched female voice from somewhere in the back of Barnhill Arena, adding to the list mentioned today. The down-home dialects of associates speaking at Sam’s behest are a mixture of twangs and drawls from the Midwest, Southwest and Southeast — Wal-Mart Country.

An Illinois woman steps to one of the microphones in the audience and dresses down Sam for not visiting her store as he had promised. Meeting the gaze of his accuser in this comical confrontation, he visibly flinches under the weight of her truthful words. Sam backpedals apologetically. She will not let him off the hook.

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.

“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.

Their names also grace buildings on the University of Arkansas campus.

The Sam M. Walton College of Business honors the charismatic leader. The memorialization dates back to 1998 when the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation donated $50 million, the largest upfront cash gift ever given to a public business college at the time.

Bud Walton Arena opened for the 1993-94 National Championship season and became the new venue for Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders’ meetings.

Bud bankrolled half the $30 million cost of building the 19,200-seat replacement for Barnhill Arena.

Total revenue from Wal-Mart’s global operations topped $473 billion and produced a $16 billion profit during the 12 months ending Jan. 31.

The company operates 11,000 stores in 27 countries. Sam’s son, Rob, is chairman of the board and, as of February 2014, Doug McMillon is CEO.

And George Waldon, who covered the shareholders meeting in 1988, is a senior editor with Arkansas Business.