The Wal-Mart Annual Meeting: From Small-Town America to a Global Corporate Culture

By Schneider, Mary Jo | Human Organization, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Wal-Mart Annual Meeting: From Small-Town America to a Global Corporate Culture


Schneider, Mary Jo, Human Organization


Wal-Mart is this nation's largest and most profitable retailer. A longitudinal analysis of the form and content of the Wal-Mart annual meeting demonstrates how Wal-Mart has succeeded in recreating our social order by restoring the values of a mythic bygone America while simultaneously allowing its followers to participate in a scientific, classless, and rational community. Key words: Wal-Mart, annual meeting, corporation; U.S., Arkansas

This paper explores the message of the Wal-Mart annual shareholders meeting. My husband and I have attended every shareholders meeting for the past 20 years. We will chronicle changes in the corporate message of Wal-Mart over time and relate these changes to growth in Wal-Mart and new economic and consumer realities in American and global cultures.

The first meetings we attended were hosted by Sam Walton and held at company headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, in a crowded, unadorned auditorium that resembled an elementary school cafeteria. By contrast, the 1995, 1996, and 1997 annual meetings were held in the new and spectacular Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. The 20,000 seat arena houses the Arkansas Razorback basketball team in a $34 million complex partly paid for by the late Bud Walton, brother of Sam Walton, the company's founder. The Wal-Mart annual meeting is the largest shareholders meeting in the world. Wal-Mart employs more than 600,000 Americans and outranks General Motors as the country's largest private employer.

The Legend of Wal-Mart

The legend of Wal-Mart is in many ways the American dream come true. It is the phenomenal success of Wal-Mart that enabled Sam Walton and his heirs to be listed by "Forbes" magazine among the richest families in the world. The company's roots go back to the early 1940s when Walton began his career in retailing as a management trainee for the J.C. Penney company (Wal-Mart 1992; Trimble 1990). In 1950, Sam Walton moved to Bentonville, where he opened the first Walton's 5 & 10. Visitors to the Wal-Mart Museum in Bentonville today get some feel for the ambiance of this original store and small-town Americana.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Sam and his brother Bud accumulated fifteen Ben Franklin franchises. In 1962, the first Wal-Mart Discount City opened in Rogers, Arkansas. By the end of the decade there were fourteen Walton-owned Ben Franklin stores and eighteen Wal-Mart stores in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

The growth of Wal-Mart escalated in the 1970s. In 1970, Wal-Mart became a publicly held company that was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Earnings grew from $44 million in 1970 to over $1.2 billion in 1979. In the 1980s, Wal-Mart experimented with discount drug stores, craft stores, convenience stores, and giant Hypermarts, but these ventures were later largely abandoned. Wholesale Clubs and Supercenters, however, were two retailing experiments that succeeded. Wholesale Clubs offer rock-bottom prices to small businesses and individual customers. The first Sam's Wholesale Club (now Sam's Club) opened in 1984, and by 1995 more than 450 were in operation. The retailing concept from the 1980s that was most successful was the Supercenter, which combines grocery items with the traditional discount store inventory at "Everyday Low Prices." In a sense, the Supercenter represents a return to the general store concept of more than a century ago, before retailing began to divide into food and general merchandise components. The Wal-Mart giant Supercenter is as large as four football fields - more than 200,000 square feet. It is a place where people of all ethnic and income levels come to shop a contemporary museum of 100,000 product lines.

In 1996 Wal-Mart had sales of more than $ 100 billion. WalMart's sales are larger than the combined sales of K-Mart and Sears, the second and third largest retailers. The company boasts of more than 100 consecutive quarters of sales and profit growth, an achievement unequaled by any other company. …

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