The Story of Sam Walton

  • lauren DeAlmeida
  • July 12, 2021
  • 0

Samuel Moore Walton is the brain behind Sam’s Club and the famous Walmart. The American businessman and entrepreneur were born on the 29th of March, 1918. He passed away on the 5th of April,1992, when he was 74. Over the years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. grew to be the world’s largest corporation by revenue. Moreover so, it became the biggest private employer in the world. For a period of time, Sam Walton was the richest man in America.

Sam Walton as a college student

Image Courtesy of Historic Missourians

Sam Walton’s Personal Life

On the 14th of February 1943, Sam Walton married Helen Robson. They had four children: Samuel Robson (Rob), born in 1944; John Thomas (1946–2005), James Carr (Jim), born in 1948; and Alice Louise, born in 1949.

Sam Walton had taken part in various charitable causes and supported many people. He and Helen were active in the First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville. In fact, Sam Walton served as an Elder and a Sunday School teacher, teaching high school-age students. In addition, the family made substantial contributions to the congregation.

A Peek Into Sam Walton’s Early Life

Sam Walton was brought up in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. He lived on his farm with his parents, Gibson and Nancy Lee, until 1923. He realized that farming did not raise enough money for his family. His father decided to get into farming mortgaging and worked for his brother’s company. However, it did not work out for him. Therefore, Gibson migrated from Oklahoma to a small town.

Sam Walton attended school in Shelbina, Missouri. He became the youngest Eagle Scout in the state’s history. After a few years, Sam became a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America. After that, the Walton family moved again. They went to Columbia, Missouri.

The great economic depression happened. However, Sam did shores to help his family meet financial ends. He milked the family cow, bottled up the surplus milk, and drove it to customers. Later on, he delivered the Columbia Daily Tribune newspapers on a paper route. In addition to that, Sam Walton also sold magazine subscriptions. Later on, he graduated from the David H. Hickman High School in Columbia. As a matter of fact, he was voted “Most Versatile Boy” in high school.

Sam Walton’s University Life

After high school, Sam Walton decided to attend college. He hoped that he would find a better way to help support his family through education. Sam Walton attended the University of Missouri as an ROTC cadet. He also worked part-time, including waiting tables in exchange for meals. Sam Walton decided to join the Zeta Phi chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity during his time in college.

He was also tapped by QEBH, the well-known secret society on campus honoring the top senior men. Furthermore,  the national military honor society Scabbard and Blade also honored him. Additionally, Walton served as president of Burrell Bible Class. It was a large class of students from the University of Missouri and Stephens College.

In 1940, Sam Walton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Sam was voted “permanent president” of the class. He believed in being a giver than a taker. Therefore, it was important for him to help others as much as he can. While he was serving in the army, Sam Walton realized that he wanted to go into retailing and go into business.

Early Career 

Walton joined J. C. Penney as a management trainee in Des Moines, Iowa. As a matter of fact, this happened within three days after graduating from college. He was paid $75 a month for that position. He worked for 18 months at J. C. Penny. In 1942, Sam Walton resigned. He anticipated being inducted into the military for service in World War II.

Meanwhile, Sam Walton worked at the DuPont munitions plant. It was near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Later on, Sam Walton joined the military in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps. He supervised security at aircraft plants and prisoner of war camps. After that, Sam served at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah. He eventually reached the rank of captain.

Sam Walton’s First Store

Sam Walton left the military in 1945. He took over management of his first variety store at the age of 26. At that time, his father-in-law helped him with $26,000. Sam had saved up $5000 from his time in the army. He combined the money and purchased a Ben Franklin variety store. It was located in Newport, Arkansas. Actually, the store was a franchise of the Butler Brothers chain.

At that time, Sam Walton introduced many concepts that became crucial to his success.

According to Walton, if he offered prices as good or better than stores in cities four hours away by car, people would shop at home. Therefore, Sam Walton made sure the shelves were consistently stocked with a wide range of goods. His second store, the tiny “Eagle” department store, was down the street from his first Ben Franklin and next door to its main competitor in Newport. Within three years, the sales volume grew from $80,000 to $225,000.

Early Business Lessons

Due to the rise in success, Sam Walton drew the landlord’s attention, P. K. Holmes, whose family had a history in retail. P. K. Holmes admired Sam Walton’s great success. However, Holmes desired to reclaim the store (and franchise rights) for his son, and so, he refused to renew the lease. The lack of a renewal option, together with the prohibitively high rent of 5% of sales, were early business lessons to Walton. Despite forcing Sam Walton out, Holmes bought the store’s inventory and fixtures for $50,000, which Walton called “a fair price.”

A year was left on the lease. Finally, however, the store effectively sold. Sam’s wife, Helen, and his father-in-law managed to negotiate the purchase of a new location on the downtown square of Bentonville, Arkansas, during that time.

Sam Walton negotiated the purchase of a small discount store and the title to the building. However, there was a  condition that he get a 99-year lease to expand into the shop next door. The owner of the shop next door refused six times. Sam Walton gave up on Bentonville. Later on, his father-in-law, without Sam’s knowledge, paid the shop owner a final visit. They agreed on $20,000 to secure the lease. He had just enough left from the sale of the first store to close the deal and reimburse Helen’s father. On the 9th of May 1950, they opened for business with a one-day remodeling sale. 

Before he bought the Bentonville store, it was doing $72,000 in sales, and it increased to $105,000 in the first year and then $140,000 and $175,000.

The Ben Franklin Stores Chain

Sam Walton learned to delegate responsibility with a year left on the lease in Newport. The ‘Five and Dime’ was open for business in Bentonville, and at that time, it was 220 miles away. So the two stores had a huge distance apart. Soon, Sam Walton became enthusiastic about scouting more locations and opening more Ben Franklin franchises.

Later on, in 1954, he opened a store with his brother Bud in a shopping center in Ruskin Heights. It is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. With the help of his brother and father-in-law, Sam Walton decided to open many new variety stores.

Moreover, Sam Walton encouraged his managers to invest and take an equity stake in the business. Sam encourages them to invest as much as $1000 in their store or the next outlet to open. In turn, this motivated the managers to sharpen their managerial skills. The managers were thrilled to take ownership over their role in the enterprise.

Furthermore, in 1962 and his brother Bud, he owned 16 stores in Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. This included fifteen Ben Franklin’s and one independent in Fayetteville.

Sam Walton is regarded as one of the greatest project entrepreneurs in the retail chain industry. In fact, he had a great passion for learning. He frequently made unannounced visits to Walmarts around the country to learn what local innovations were working. After that, he shared his knowledge with other Walmarts.

Actually, on one of those visits, he was puzzled by a greeter saying “hello” at the store entrance. He asked the guy what he was doing. The greeter explained that his main job was to discourage shoplifters from taking unpaid merchandise out of the store through the entrance. Walton was delighted. He shared the innovation with “associates” throughout his chain.

The First Walmart Store

On the 2nd of July, 1962, the first true Walmart was launched. It was opened in Rogers, Arkansas. Sam named it Wal-Mart Discount City store. The store was located at 719 West Walnut Street. Sam Walton launched a determined effort to market American-made products. In fact, he identified American manufacturers who could supply merchandise for the while of the Walmart Chain at a low price that was enough to meet the foreign competition.

As the Meijer store chain grew, it caught the attention of Walton. He came to acknowledge that his one-stop-shopping center format was based on Meijer’s original, innovative concept. Moreover, contrary to the prevailing practice of American discount store chains, Sam Walton located stores in smaller towns, not larger cities.

At that time, to be near consumers, the only option was to open outlets in small towns. Sam Walton’s model offered two advantages; first of all, the existing competition was limited; secondly, if a store were large enough to control business in a town and its surrounding areas, other merchants would be discouraged from entering the market.

To make his model work, he emphasized logistics and supplies. He particularly located stores within a day’s drive of Walmart’s regional warehouses. Sam Walton distributed through its own trucking service. Buying in volume and efficient delivery permitted the sale of discounted name-brand merchandise. Thanks to this clever strategy that he laid out, he effectively sustained growth. He went from 1977’s 190 stores to 1985’s 800 stores. His mission was achieved.

Given its scale and economic influence, Walmart is noted to impact any region where it establishes a store significantly. These impacts, both positive and negative, have been dubbed the “Walmart Effect.”

The Death of Sam Walton

On Sunday, the 5th of April, 1993, Sam Walton passed away. It was three months away from Walmart’s 30th anniversary. Sam Walton’s cause of death was multiple myeloma. It was a type of blood cancer. He passed away in Little Rock, Arkansas. The news of his death was relayed by satellite to all 1,960 Walmart stores. By the time Sam Walton passed away, his company had employed 380,000 people. The Walmart company had sales of around $50 billion. It flowed from 1,735 Walmart, 212 Sam’s Clubs, and 13 supercenters.

His remains are interred at the Bentonville Cemetery. Sam Walton left his ownership in Walmart to his wife and their children: Rob Walton succeeded his father as the Chairman of Walmart, and John Walton was a director until his death in a 2005 plane crash.

The others are not directly involved in the company (except through their voting power as shareholders). However, his son Jim Walton is chairman of Arvest Bank. The Walton family held five spots in the top ten richest people in the United States until 2005. Two daughters of Sam’s brother Bud Walton—Ann Kroenke and Nancy Laurie—hold smaller shares in the company.

The Sam Walton Legacy

Walton was honored for his work in retail in March 1992. In addition, Sam Walton was added to Time’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century in 1998. Furthermore, a month before his death, he actually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George H.W. Bush.

From the year 1982 to 1988, Forbes ranked Sam Walton as the richest person in the United States. Walmart then expanded to more than fifteen international markets. These include United Kingdom, Swaziland, Honduras, Japan, China, Chile, Brazile, Costa Rica, Guatemala,  Kenya, India, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Botswana, and Tanzania.

In 1992, the University of Arkansas named their business school honor of Sam Walton (Sam M. Walton College of Business). In fact, Sam Walton was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992.

Read more on: The Success Story of Mark Zuckerberg.

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