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Greg Penner Named Wal-Mart’s 3rd Chairman at Annual Shareholders’ Meeting

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Rob Walton stepped down as chairman of the board of directors of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville during the company’s annual shareholders meeting Friday.

Walton, 70, is the son of founder Sam Walton and has served as chairman for 23 years. His son-in-law, Greg Penner, was named the new chairman to replace Walton, who will continue as a director.

“I don’t see a single challenge out there Wal-Mart can’t overcome,” Walton said before handing over the reins. “We don’t shy away from competition. We thrive on it.”

Penner, 45, joined the board in 2008 and was named vice chairman last year in a move to position him to replace his father-in-law. Penner is Wal-Mart’s third chairman in its 53 years after its late founder and Rob Walton.

“I feel a deep sense of responsibility,” Penner said from the stage at Bud Walton Arena on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “No one can fill your shoes. I only hope to live up to your example as chairman.”

Star Studded

The shareholders meeting was its typical extravaganza, with Academy Award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon serving as hostess. Witherspoon was born in New Orleans and spent her childhood in Nashville. She said the meeting was an opportunity for her to get “my y’alls out.”

Many of the speeches during the meeting were about the future, but the entertainment portion of the event had a decidedly throwback feel. Performers included Brian McKnight, Ricky Martin, Mariah Carey and, to cap the show, Rod Stewart.

Witherspoon also brought out variety show legend Carol Burnett and asked her questions about her career. She finished by getting Burnett to do her famous Tarzan yell.

Today’s Consumer

The theme of many of the division heads’ speeches was the future of integrating Wal-Mart’s sales with today’s consumers, who are increasingly shopping and buying things online. Wal-Mart announced its pilot program ShippingPass on Thursday, through which customers can get free unlimited three-day delivery for purchased items for an annual fee of $50.

Witherspoon, a mother of three, mentioned Wal-Mart’s online ordering and pickup service during her opening remarks, saying it was great for a mother to be able to pick up groceries on her way home from picking her children up from school.

“That is a miracle,” Witherspoon said. “That can change your life. That’s what Wal-Mart has been doing for 53 years.”

Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon said he wanted the company to stop thinking of physical and digital sales as separate components of retail. He said 85 percent of millennials use a smartphone, and 80 percent of them use one while physically shopping in a store.

“To win with them, we want to blend seamlessly into their lives — to help them get what they want and need and to enjoy doing so,” McMillon said.  “It’s now one customer at a time. One customer can shop with us in so many different ways — in stores, on their phones, at home, at a pickup point.”

McMillon said customers want what they want when they want it. David Cheesewright, the CEO of Wal-Mart International, said the division serves 100 million customers weekly and they want more options and flexibility. Neil Ashe, the CEO of Wal-Mart Global eCommerce, said Walmart.com has seven million items for sale and expectations are for that number to increase to more than 10 million next year.

“Moving with speed has never been more important,” Ashe said. “[Customers] want everything in life to be easy and convenient.”

Ashe was beginning to tell a story when the vocal Sam’s Club contingent, which had cheerfully interrupted the proceedings whenever the words “Sam” or “Club” was mentioned, began to holler in concern because an associate had a medical problem. Ashe stopped his remarks and called a medic to the area, and later expressed relief when the stricken person was said to be fine.

“We move fast, and we have high expectations,” Ashe said when he continued. “We’re finding new ways to reach our customers.”

The Vote

The shareholders also voted on nine proposals, including five submitted by shareholders. The company proposals for the reelection of 15 board members, ratification of Ernst & Young as auditor and the 2015 stock incentive plan and an advisory vote on executive compensation all passed.

The five shareholder proposals all failed. Included were a request for documentation of the company’s recoupment of executive pay — called “clawbacks” — and a request for an annual report on greenhouse gas emissions.

Other proposals called for the election of an independent chairman, the ability of shareholders who owned 3 percent of the company to nominate director candidates and documentation of compensation to executives. Each supporter of the proposals was given three minutes to address the meeting and, despite Wal-Mart Corporate Secretary Jeff Gearhart’s request to stay on the topic of the proposal, much of the talk was to lobby Wal-Mart to raise pay to $15 an hour.

The crowd cheered when Gearhart announced later that all five proposals had failed. He said the official vote totals for each proposal would be released later.

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