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Finances & Money Frugality

Lessons on Humility from the Life of Sam Walton

by Cameron C. Taylor

Guest post by Cameron C. Taylor, author of the book “Does Your Bag Have Holes? 24 Truths That Lead to Financial and Spiritual Freedom“.

“Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.”
-T. S. Eliot

In 1962, Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store at the age of 44 in Rogers, Arkansas. Five years later, in 1967, Wal-Mart had 24 stores doing more than $1 million per month in sales. In 1975, Wal-mart had 125 stores doing almost $1 million per day in sales. In 1979, Wal-Mart had 276 stores doing more than $100 million per month in sales, becoming the fastest company in history to reach a billion dollars a year in sales. Wal-Mart is now doing nearly a billion dollars a day. In 2005, Wal-Mart did $312 billion in sales from 6,200 facilities with 1.6 million employees and more than 138 million customers visiting the stores each week (Wal-Mart facts, retrieved January 8, 2007).

Although his fame, power, and net worth grew over the years, Sam Walton remained the same; a humble man focused on helping others. He lived a clean life . . . [and was] a man whose handshake you can rely on in any kind of deal (Vance H. Trimble, Sam Walton, (New York: Dutton, 1990) p. 68). Sam Walton saw an opportunity to bless the lives of those in small towns across America that were being overlooked by the big retail chains. He was driven by his mission to provide a better shopping experience for everyday people living in small towns. He wanted to improve their standard of living by providing quality goods at low prices in a pleasant shopping environment (Don Soderquist, Live Learn Lead to Make a Difference, (Nashville, TN: J. Countryman, 2006) p. 121). Near the end of his life he said, I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never a goal of mine (Sam Walton, Sam Walton, (New York: Doubleday, 1992) p. 234).

Even though he was a billionaire many times over, you wouldn’t know it if you met him on the street. He drove [an] old pick-up truck, and he lived in a humble house in Bentonville that almost anyone with a job could have afforded (Michael Bergdahl, What I Learned From Sam Walton, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004) p. 114) and he purchased many of his clothes from Wal-Mart. Bernard Marcus, chairman and co-founder of Home Depot, recalled going out to lunch with Walton after a meeting in Bentonville: I hopped into Sam’s red pickup truck. No air-conditioning. Seats stained by coffee. And by the time I got to the restaurant, my shirt was soaked through and through. And that was Sam Walton; no airs [attempts to impress others], no pomposity [arrogance] (Daniel Gross, Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Times, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) p. 274).

An executive who joined Wal-Mart from Frito-Lay shared this story: “After I had joined the company, I still remember seeing Sam walk into the Home Office bathroom the same bathroom used by everybody else . . . multi-billionaire Sam Walton didn’t have a private executive washroom. He used the same facilities that everybody else used. This was quite a contrast for me from the executives I had known at Frito-Lay, who enjoyed a private underground parking area, private bathrooms, and an executive dining room” (Michael Bergdahl, What I Learned From Sam Walton, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004) p. 132).

Don Soderquist, retired senior vice chairman of the board for Wal-Mart, shared the following experience that happened while working with Sam Walton at a store grand opening: “Like most of the grand openings, we expected a big crowd, but in this one our productivity couldn’t keep up with the traffic flow. Before long, Sam jumped in and began to bag merchandise. He handed out candy to the kids and did anything he could think of to help the customers feel more comfortable with the long lines . . . I confess, as a former company president of a national retail chain and now an executive vice president for Wal-Mart, I had never served customers on the front lines like I did that day. You don’t think I was going to stand around and watch my leader do you? Sam was a very humble man, and he taught me a valuable lesson that day. None of us are too good to do the little jobs. In fact, there are no little jobs. If the chairman of the board wasn’t too high and mighty to hand out lollipops and bag goods; neither was I . . . No matter how large we became, Sam always reminded us that we were no better than anyone else and should never become blinded by our own importance” (Don Soderquist, Live Learn Lead to Make a Difference, (Nashville, TN: J. Countryman, 2006) p. 44-45).

Sam Walton valued Wal-Mart’s employees and took the time to listen and learn from them. During his 30 years as Wal-Mart’s CEO, he had a policy that any employee could contact him directly with a problem, comment, or idea. On several occasions, Sam took donuts to the Wal-Mart employees and talked to them during their breaks. He was always learning from others. In his biography he wrote, “I probably visited more headquarters’ offices of more discounters than anybody else…ever. I would just show up and say, “Hi, I’m Sam Walton from Bentonville, Arkansas. We’ve got a few stores out there, and I’d like to visit with Mr. So-and-So whoever the head of the company was about this business. And as often as not, they’d let me in, maybe out of curiosity, and I’d ask lots of questions about pricing and distribution, whatever. I learned a lot that way” (Sam Walton, Sam Walton, (New York: Doubleday, 1992) p. 81).

He continually tried to improve the Wal-Mart experience for the customers and employees. He wrote, “I have always [been] somebody who wants to make things work well, then better, then the best they possibly can. . . I was never in anything for the short haul; I always wanted to build as fine a retailing organization as I could” (Sam Walton, Sam Walton, (New York: Doubleday, 1992) p. 78-79).

After the company made a public stock offering in 1970, Sam implemented a profit-sharing plan for all employees to be paid in Wal-Mart stock. As a result, many managers and hourly employees retired from Wal-Mart as millionaires. Sam Walton loved each of his employees, calling them associates and treating them like family.

On April 5, 1992, at age 74, Sam Walton passed away from cancer. The news was sent via satellite directly to the company’s 1,960 stores; when the announcement played on the public address system at some stores, clerks started crying (Daniel Gross, Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Times, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) p. 283). An executive of a competing store said of Sam Walton, “The way he lived his life reminded me that I had rather see a sermon than hear one anytime” (Daniel Gross, Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Times, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996) p. 270).

For more on this, pick up a copy of Sam Walton’s biography Sam Walton: Made In America. Its ranked 4 out of 5 stars on goodreads.  For fans interested in learning more about Walton its a must read.

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