'Work Hard, Distinguish Yourself,' Walmart CEO Tells SCC Crowd
Bill Simon told Sandhills Community College business students that any of them could one day have his job — president and CEO of Walmart U.S.
“There’s nothing that stands in the way of your success if you apply yourself and work hard, but you’ve got to distinguish yourself if you want to be successful,” Simon said. “You’ve got to look at your life in bite-size chunks and try to determine the best path.”
Simon is responsible for the strategic direction and operational performance of the U.S. business, including more than 3,700 stores and 1.3 million employees, for the world’s largest retailer. Sales at U.S. stores account for 62 percent of the company’s total revenue, which annually tops $400 billion.
Simon spent almost an hour Wednesday answering some of the more than 100 questions submitted in advance by the college’s business students. Local business people and politicians also attended the event.
“I’ve spoken to students at Harvard and other universities, and I am here today,” he said. “To me, this is more important than that. You are the next generation of leadership in our country.”
Simon learned about leadership and humility during a 25-year career in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves.
“There’s a big difference between positional authority and personal authority,” he said. “I learned that the hard way when the paymaster on my first ship repeatedly ‘lost’ my paycheck after I tried to impose my will because I was an officer with gold bars on my uniform. Now, I try to be hands-off, brain-on. I’ve learned over the years that there are lots of ways to get there.”
Simon personalized most his answers and often injected humor.
Asked how he starts his day, Simon said, “By yelling at my kids, like everyone else.”
But Simon was dead serious when talking about Walmart’s return to its “everyday low-price” strategy, the bedrock philosophy of founder Sam Walton.
“”When we do our jobs right, people pay less,” he said. “When we don’t, they shop elsewhere. We go the way the economy goes. We don’t look at the recession as an opportunity to do more business.”
The strategy seems to be working because revenue at Walmart’s U.S. stores that have been open at least a year rose three months in a row in July, August and September.
Simon and other executives had promised a quarterly increase by the end of the year, ending nine quarters of decline, and last month’s news apparently indicates they could make good on that vow in the quarter that ended Oct. 28. Results for the quarter will be reported on Nov. 15.
Walmart has also pledged to reduce expenses even more aggressively over the next five years and put those savings into reducing the prices its customers pay.
“Everything we do is focused on trying to offer the lowest prices possible,” Simon said. “Fundamentally, we’re still a small, humble company that grew to be big.”
Walmart, which started in 1952 with Walton’s first store in Bentonville, Ark., had total revenue through the first half of this fiscal year of more than $213 billion.
Simon admitted that his job places plenty of demands on his time, but he tries to remain focused and attentive to the people he is with at any given moment.
“These are some crazy days,” he said. “It can be surreal at times. You just have to stay grounded.”
Patrick Coughlin, president and CEO of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce, said he was pleasantly surprised by Simon’s humility.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was really kind of shocked at how down-to-earth and unassuming he was,” Coughlin said. “His appearance here put a face and a personality of Walmart that a lot of people don’t get to see. I think that was valuable for this community.”
College President John Dempsey agreed that Simon demonstrated “that you can be very successful and still be a nice guy.”
“He was remarkably at ease and calm,” Dempsey said. “He’s a serene guy who is probably calm under fire. I also thought he had wonderful lessons for the kids. He had a lot of really good ideas, thoughts and practical points. I’m extremely pleased with how the day went.”
Chris Gilder, founder and chief innovation officer of Meridian Zero Degrees in Aberdeen, came to listen because Walmart is a customer, and Meridian partners with other companies to operate a self- service solution technology center in Bentonville.
“We sell servicesolutions to Walmart through Hewlett-Packard,” Gilder said. “Walmart has brought a lot of business to us. It says a lot about him to come here and talk to the students.”
The event would likely never have occurred had Simon not vacationed along the North Carolina coast last summer with his family and bumped into Fletcher Myers, a professor in the college’s management and business technology department and coordinator of its entrepreneurship program.
“I was on my sailboat and he was in his powerboat,” Myers said. “We got to talking, and I jokingly asked him if he worked for Walmart after he told me that he was was from Arkansas. That’s when I learned that he was the president and CEO.”
Myers was also vacationing with his family, and his children started calling Simon “the nice dad.”
“We didn’t exchange information then, but I wrote a letter when the school year resumed, asking him to come speak to the students at Sandhills,” Myers said. “All I did was write a letter. It was a team effort by the college to pull this event off. Everyone did a tremendous job, and Bill was tremendous with the students.”
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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