“All I really own is my little red pickup and some stock in Wal-Mart,” Sam Walton once said. Behind the modesty was a shrewd businessman who went from a tiny store in Bentonville to building a multi-billion dollar retail empire.
He was born Samuel Moore Walton on his parents’ farm outside Kingfisher, in central Oklahoma, in March 1918. His father struggled at farming, as did many others at the time, and the family left for Missouri in 1923, where his father worked as a banker and an insurance agent.
As an adolescent during the Great Depression, Walton had developed a gift for business. He found all sorts of ways to make money, including delivering newspapers, selling magazines door-to-door, and even selling milk from the family cow. In 1936, he enrolled at the University of Missouri, working his way through college. He was a popular figure on campus and graduated with an economics degree in 1940. He began working as a management trainee for J. C. Penney in Iowa after graduation; but with the beginning of World War II, he entered the army, serving as a captain and working in the intelligence sections. He married in 1943, and the couple had four children.
After the war, Walton was determined to become a success in business. In 1945, he bought a Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime franchise store in Newport with a $25,000 loan from his father-in-law. The five-and-dime stores were popular stores featuring low-cost items, usually costing a nickel or a dime (the 1940s version of the dollar store, adjusted for inflation). He kept the shelves stocked and always looked for ways to lower prices to outbid competing stores. The store made a fortune, a success so immense that the landlord refused to renew the lease and asked to buy the store from him. Walton agreed and soon opened a new store across town. He quickly became a success and brought his brother Bud in as a partner. By 1962, the two owned 15 locations.
At the same time, frustrated by the Ben Franklin corporate restrictions, he decided to apply his own business ideas in a store far from his own. In 1950, he bought a local five-and-dime store in downtown Bentonville from businessman Luther Harrison. Walton converted it into Walton’s Five-And-Dime, and it became successful in its own right.
Walton was well-known for charming his customers, and he studied their shopping habits. He realized that customers would enjoy a one-stop shopping experience instead of having to go to several different stores. He saw a great deal of inefficiency required by company executives that ate into store profits, including using the same high-cost suppliers for his stores’ merchandise. Applying simple economic principles, he understood that if he cut the up-front profit margin built into a store’s prices, it would lower the overall price and in the process would prompt customers to buy more of that product. Thus a large store could make a fortune, even in a small town with a small customer base.
He tried to convince Ben Franklin executives to cut their built-in 25% profit from store prices in half, but they would not budge. Frustrated, Walton decided to part ways with the Ben Franklin chain in early 1962.
Applying his ideas in July 1962, he opened the first Wal-Mart Discount City store in Rogers. Applying his ideas of low costs and emphasizing customer service into his one-stop shopping concept for everything from appliances to clothes to food, the store quickly became a success. By 1965, he had added two more Wal-Mart stores in Northwest Arkansas.
In 1967, he opened two Wal-Mart stores in the Little Rock area, bringing the total to five. The next year, 1968, he jumped out to make Wal-Mart a force to be reckoned with as he opened two stores in southern Missouri and three in Northeast Oklahoma, doubling the number of stores he owned. He kept building, and with his brand of personally overseeing his stores and emphasizing customer service and underselling his competition, the stores grew in popularity.
Looking to maximize sales and opportunity, in 1968, he began computerizing operations. Buying an IBM mainframe computer, Walton began tracking sales and inventory at different locations. He also hired a pilot to begin scouting different locations for future stores. Wal-Mart was on its way to becoming a major retail power. The Ben Franklin chain declared bankruptcy by the 1990s while Wal-Mart was still moving up.