Sam Walton: Exceptional Performer

Wal-Mart’s recently built store in a community about ten miles east of us became a topic of controversy for many. Curious about the company’s founder, I read, Sam Walton: Made in America. No matter what you may think about Wal-Mart, there are lessons to be learned from exceptional performer, Sam Walton.

Note: This article is not about any controversy surrounding the company. This article is about Walton’s performance characteristics.

The primary characteristic I found throughout the book was Sam’s never-ending perseverance and quest to make things better and/or be the best at whatever he did. Following is a list of many examples of his early accomplishments:

Grade school – class officer for several years.
Youngest Eagle Scout in Missouri at age 13.
Rescued a young man who was drowning at age 14.
High school honor roll.
Student body president.
President of the senior men’s honor society.
Officer in his fraternity.
Captain and president of his ROTC Scabbard and Blade unit.
President of his Bible class.
Active in a number of several clubs including speech club
Football, basketball, and baseball player.
Ran basketball team – undefeated and won state championship.
Team quarterback – undefeated and won state championship.
Top recruiting salesman for the Columbia Missourian.

Next, here a dozen comments by Sam, family members, and associates as well as scenarios regarding his perseverance and never-ending quest to make things better:

Sam: Response when asked, “How did Wal-Mart do it?” “Friend, we just go after it and stayed after it.”

Sam: “I was totally competitive as an athlete and my main talent was probably the same as my best talent as a retailer.”

Sam: “As good as a business was, I could never leave well enough alone, and in fact, I think my constant fiddling and meddling with the status quo may have been one of my biggest contributions to the later success of Wal-Mart.”

Sam: “. . . I have always pursued everything I was interested in with a true passion—some would say obsession—to win. I’ve always held the bar pretty high for myself: I’ve set extremely high personal goals.”

Helen Walton’s (Sam’s wife): “”What really drove Sam was that competition across the street . . . Sam was always over there . . . looking at prices, looking at displays, looking at what was going on . . . looking for a way to do a better job.”

Bud Walton (Sam’s brother): “He never stopped trying to do something different.”

First job in retail: Penney’s for 18 months prior to going on active duty in the Army. While at Penney’s, he spent his lunch hours checking out Sears and Yonkers stores to learn what others were doing.

After the army, Sam bought a Ben Franklin ‘five and dime’ store for $25k with $5k of his and his wife’s money plus a $20k loan from his wife’s father. “It was a real blessing for me to be so green and ignorant, because it was from that experience that I learned a lesson which has stuck with me all through the years: you can learn from everybody. I didn’t just learn from reading every retail publication I could get my hands on, I probably learned the most from studying what [his primary competitor] was doing across the street.”

In the beginning, Sam followed the rules and procedures of the Franklin Stores. Once he saw where he could make some positive changes resulting in higher profits, he started ‘experimenting’ by laying out his own ads and buying merchandise directly from the manufacturer. Through his experimenting he discovered the benefits of volume buying, quantity packaging (like Costco), and promotional discounting. These became key factors in the Wal-Mart’s ‘system’.

Sam: “Our story . . . I think more than anything, it proves there’s absolutely no limit to what plain, ordinary working people can accomplish if they’re given the opportunity. . ..”

David Glass (former Wal-Mart CEO): “ Two things about Sam Walton distinguish him from almost everyone I know. First, he gets up every day bound and determined to improve something. Second, he is less afraid of being wrong than anyone I’ve ever known.”

Charlie Cate (Retired Wal-Mart Store Manager): “Sam had us send our sales reports every week, and along with it we had to send in a Best Selling Item. I mean we had to. What he was doing was teaching us to look for what’s selling all the time. You had to look because you had to send in this report every week, and if you reported nothing was selling well, Mr. Walton would not be happy. He would think you weren’t studying your merchandise, and in that case he’d come study it for you. He’s been that way ever since I first met him in 1954.”

Note: There a numerous other comments by others and scenarios throughout the book that confirm Sam Walton’s commitment to perseverance and ‘Kaizen’. And, when you really think about it, it goes back to his having defined what he wanted and ‘lived’ an unconditional commitment to achieving his goals.

Personally, I found the book very interesting. It was written over 25 years ago about events beginning over 70 years ago. My impression, I think those interested in ‘performance based results’ should definitely pick this one up and read it to understand the power of a single focus.

By the way, as far as being an exceptional performer is concerned, in 1985 Forbes magazine recognized Sam Walton as the ‘richest man in America’ and acknowledged his one-stop-shop format with the goal of buying products in bulk and passing the savings to customers, was a true innovation.

In closing, think about the following questions and then think about your multiple-part answer and your commitment to being the trader you aspire to be:

Question:  To what degree are you constantly and consistently improving your ability to interpret current market conditions?

Question:  Use that information as the basis for improving your trading process, methodology, and performance?

Question:  If not 100%, why not? What needs to change? What’s your plan to make the change or changes?

Until next time . . .