Lately, I have been reading the biography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, titled “Made in America.” I haven’t finished it, but I came across this quote from David Glass (an eventual CEO of Wal-Mart) that gives a pretty good snapshot into the kind of guy that Walton was:
When Sam feels a certain way, he’s restless. Two things about Sam Walton distinguish him from almost everyone else 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. And once he sees he’s wrong, he just shakes it off and heads in another direction.
When some people go to Wal-Mart, they might think of a “big box” retailer that is usually associated with corporate greed and excess by squeezing every penny out of vendors and paying wages to entry-level employees that flirt with the poverty line, depending on the specific circumstances. Other people look at Wal-Mart and reduce it to a ticker symbol “WMT” and see that it mails out $1.88 each year for every share of the common stock that you manage to own.
But when I think of Wal-Mart, I think of all the series of personal struggles and tribulations that it took Sam Wal-Mart to get there. Sometimes we just assume that certain things “have always been there.” When I was an undergrad, I remember watching a video of Robert Frost speak at JFK’s inauguration, and it hit me that poems like “Stopping by Woods on A Snowy Evening”, “Fire and Ice”, and “The Road Not Taken” weren’t always in English poetry anthologies across the world. There had to have been a concrete moment in mine when Robert Frost chose to memorialize his private thoughts into a tidy format that would be easily accessible for generations of Americans thereafter to understand appreciate. Silly it took me that long to realize it, I know.
But still, I have a similar feeling about Sam Walton. It was never pre-ordained that Wal-Mart had to exist. It took the sheer force of Walton’s personality to make it happen. That man was a living, breathing firecracker. Although Sam Walton’s glory days happened before I was even conceived, from what I can gather from history, the media portrayed as a bit of a bumpkin that lucked into success. Nothing could further from the truth. Sam Walton had to hustle for everything he ever had, and he was shrewd in accomplishing his goals. This is a man who found a way to beat the most popular student at the University of Missouri to win a student election. This is a man who was bringing home $4,000-$5,000 in passive income during his early 20s (that’s the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars per day).
An old cliché about the path to success says that we should “never take no” for an answer. Walton was a little bit different. He would take “no” for an answer, but then he would try a dozen different ways to accomplish his goals. Like I said, I haven’t finished Walton’s biography yet, but if I had to boil down his life’s success to own attribute, I would guess “energy.” He would work 16 hours per day. He would deal with vendors, contractors, etc. one by one. Even when Wal-Mart was worth over $50 billion, he still allowed hourly associates to meet with him if they saw any problems with Wal-Mart. What other major American CEO would do something like that?