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The annual meeting.

All one had to do was attend an annual meeting of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. shareholders to get a sense of the genius behind the company.

Sam Walton was rich.

Sam was a retail wizard.

But above all, Sam knew what was important if he was ever going to make a buck in the roller-coaster environment of retailing -- customers and employees.

Many corporations hold stale annual meetings during which company executives recite the previous year's financial figures to a room filled with affluent shareholders.

Sam had a different agenda. He turned a traditionally boring one-hour meeting into a combination carnival and show-business extravaganza.

For starters, Sam didn't hold Wal-Mart's annual meeting at the company headquarters or at some ritzy hotel where Joe Six-Pack couldn't afford to buy a glass of water. No, Sam went down the road from his Bentonville headquarters to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas' Barnhill Arena.

It was fitting that Sam use a facility that is home to the Razorback basketball team and university-sponsored concerts. It also was necessary. Sam needed the more than 8,000 seats to accommodate shareholders, financial analysts, journalists and, most importantly, his employees.

Wal-Mart's annual meeting was the event if you were an employee. Contests were held annually at every Wal-Mart store in every state for the chance to go to Fayetteville to see the big guy in action.

The winners were brought by the company to Fayetteville each June to show Sam their Wal-Mart spirit. Seating in the arena was divided by state so winners could be properly identified.

On the arena floor was a stage, complete with a runway. There were three large video screens to give those in the cheap seats a better view of their leader and, of course, Wal-Mart's financial results.

The Entertainer

Sam was never one to get bogged down in long, boring speculations about the company's future. He used the stage to entertain.

The audience usually included public figures such as the current Miss USA, complete with sash and tiara; musicians; actors; actresses. Even politicians got in on the act. Elizabeth Dole, the former Reagan Cabinet member who now directs the American Red Cross, told shareholders and employees in June 1988 that if Sam could run America like he runs Wal-Mart, she would endorse him for president in that year's election.

She added that since Sam really didn't have an interest in politics, she would have to concentrate on the presidential campaign of her husband, Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan.

Once the capacity crowd filed into the arena for the annual meeting, the lights would dim and a giant American flag would be displayed on the screens as "God Bless America" and "America The Beautiful" played to the crowd's delight.

Then, it would happen.

Out would stroll the man everyone had been waiting to see. Dressed in a business suit and a Wal-Mart baseball cap, the silver-haired billionaire would grab the microphone and begin the meeting with his patented Wal-Mart cheer.

"Give me a W. Give me an A. Give me an L."

One would have thought the Razorbacks were playing for the NCAA championship.

The show had begun with Sam commanding the attention of an evangelist.

In the minds of employees lucky enough to win the trip to Fayetteville, shareholders, financial analysts and the media, Sam represented everything that was wholesome about America.

He was "mom and apple pie."

One year, a group of Wal-Mart employees from Louisiana won the honor of appearing onstage with Sam to help him start the meeting. Four women wearing cheerleader uniforms bearing the letters W-A-L-M-A-R-T joined the billionaire in conducting the cheer.

Journalists covering Wal-Mart meetings for the first time often were confused by this display of employee pride. They were expecting the usual mundane financial figures and optimistic outlook for the next fiscal year.

Journalists who covered Wal-Mart on a regular basis knew Sam was merely reinforcing the basic business philosophy that enabled his company to grow from a small store in northwest Arkansas to the nation's top retailer.

Employee Pride

Employee pride was important to Sam. Pride greased the wheels of his retailing machine.

Sam didn't forget the financial figures that the shareholders came to hear. Yet that wasn't his role. Like the emcee of a variety show, Sam would pass the microphone to other company executives, who then would display the figures and explain what they meant to investors.

This part of the meeting didn't seem to enthuse the majority of those in attendance. They had come to see Sam, the captain of their ship, the coach of their retailing team, the man who would give them advice on how to beat the bad guys from Kmart Corp. and Sears Roebuck & Co.

Once Wal-Mart's financial officials concluded their segment of the meeting, Sam was back in control. He would spend the next portion of the show displaying goods that soon would appear in the company's stores. A giant exhibit of tennis shoes, dresses, toolboxes and other goods were on the arena floor adjacent to the stage.

Finally, there was the part of the show during which Sam was at his best. He would solicit ideas from employees on what Wal-Mart could do to better serve customers (i.e. make more money). In some cases, he would explain why the idea wouldn't work. In most cases, however, he would glance back to a panel of company executives and ask, "What do you think? Don't you think this sounds like a good idea? What do you say we do that next year?"

There always were employees who would echo compliments to their leader, similar in substance to Elizabeth Dole's.

One year, a man walked to the microphone and simply said, "God bless America and Sam Walton."

His comment was greeted with a rousing standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

True to form, Sam always would downplay his role in the company's success and credit those in the crowd -- employees and shareholders. After all, Wal-Mart employees were never called employees by Sam or any of those in the corporate hierarchy. They instead were company "associates." It's a name now used by thousands of companies trying to foster the type of corporate pride found at Wal-Mart.

The respect shown employees would continue after the annual meeting was adjourned. Employees would be treated to dinner, but it wouldn't be at some fancy hotel with cloth napkins. Instead, buses would transport Wal-Mart employees to Sam's house, where there would be barbecue and country music.

It's unlikely the format of future Wal-Mart shareholder meetings will change.

But it just won't be same without Sam leading the Wal-Mart cheer.

Bruce Kinzel covered several Wal-Mart annual meetings when he was a business writer for the Arkansas Democrat. He now is employed as a public affairs specialist for the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at Washington.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Author:Kinzel, Bruce
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 27, 1992
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