Unconventional lessons about growth from Walmart founder Sam Walton

Unconventional lessons about growth from Walmart founder Sam Walton

Let’s get this out of this way first: Walmart founder Sam Walton’s legacy is mixed, and a lot of people have legitimate criticisms of Walmart’s impact on communities and small businesses. But wherever you stand on their business model, it’s clear is that Sam Walton mastered the process of managing for growth on his way to building a single small-town shop into a multi-billion dollar chain of retail discount stores.

To be sure, Walton’s laser focus on small-town America is not a natural fit for Southeast Asia, where commercial development tends to center around a few large cities and trickles slowly out to small towns and villages where many people continue to lead traditional lifestyles.  And there are obviously vast differences between mass discount retailing and our marketing services busines model.  But some of Walton’s basic practices can generate positive results for any business. 

In his 1992 autobiography Made in America, Walton discussed taking a chance on building massive discount retail stores in places that his competitors considered not worth serving – primarily small towns with less than 50,000 people. Walton’s small-town background allowed him to recognize a gap in those markets and see an opportunity where others saw a dead end. 

“If everyone is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction,” Walton writes.  “Be prepared for a lot of folks to wave you down and tell you you’re headed in the wrong way.”
In one of the last chapters in his book, Walton describes ten rules that he believes are vital to Walmart’s success.  Some of those are specific to the US, but several are near-universal. All of the following are in Walton’s own words:

  • Share Information: “Communicate everything you possible can.  The more people know, the more they’ll understand.  The more they understand, the more they will care.  Once they care, there’s no stopping them.  If you don’t trust your people to know what’s going on, they’ll know you don’t really consider them partners.  Information is power, and the gain you get from empowering your people more than offsets the risk of informing your competitors.”
  • Listen to the front line: “Listen to everyone in your company.  And figure out ways to get them talking.  The folks on the front lines – the ones who actually talk to the customer – are the only ones who really know what’s going on out there.  You’d better find out what they know.  This really is what total quality is all about.  To push responsibility down in your organization, and to force good ideas to bubble up within it, you must listen to what your (people) are trying to tell you.”
  • Guarantee customer satisfaction: “Exceed your customers’ expectations.  If you do, they’ll come back over and over.  Give them what they want – and a little more.  Let them know you appreciate them.  Make good on your mistakes and don’t make excuses – apologize (when needed).”
  • Provide new experiences: Don’t be afraid to “cross pollinate.  Have managers switch jobs with one another to stay challenged.”  There is no harm in “keeping everyone guessing as to what the next trick will be.  Don’t become too predictable.”
  • Embrace change: “The hard part, the real challenge, is to constantly figure out ways to execute them.  You can’t just keep doing what works one time, because everything around you is always changing.  To succeed, you have to stay out in front of that change.”
    As Southeast Asian economies turn from focusing on survival to planning for growth in 2021, businesses and marketers in this rapidly evolving region would be wise to heed Walton’s advice on how to distinguish their offerings from the competition and carve out their own path for sustainable growth.