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Up through ranks, 'L.J.' takes helm of Wal-Mart opening in Westminster


L.J. Thomas' rise through the Wal-Mart chain resembles one of those stories parents tell their children about how life was easier in the old days.

But the manager of the new Westminster Wal-Mart, which opens Saturday, swears that the story is true.

"I started as a part-time associate at night," he said, with a laugh.

"I know. That's like one of those 'I walked 10 miles to school' stories. Everyone here has already heard it."

The close, amiable atmosphere at Wal-Mart drew him away from another retailer to work for Sam Walton's empire, said the Arkansas native, who prefers to go by his initials.

In fact, that friendly atmosphere pervades the company, he said.

"We're a first-name company, all the way up to the president, David Glass," said L.J. "I liked the way the associates were friendly and treated the other associates the way they wanted to be treated."

But the 37-year-old manager is quick to point out that his youth should not be mistaken for inexperience. After nine years with the company, L.J. has worked at several locations and experienced three store openings.

He said he is prepared to run what is one of the largest branches in the country.

"I've been with Wal-Mart long enough and been in enough stores that I am confident with this," he said.

"When you've been around Wal-Mart as long as I have, you've done a little bit of everything."

His last position was with the Wal-Mart Super Center in Jasper, Ala., a department store about the size of Westminster's with a 60,000-square-foot grocery store attached.

"It's a new concept that Wal-Mart is working on," L.J. said, adding that other department store chains have similar stores. "It has been very successful. Wal-Mart doesn't try anything in a big way until we try it in a small way first."

Opening a Wal-Mart store in Westminster is a natural choice, L.J. said.

"I think Westminster has a lot to offer," he said. "It's very friendly, with a small-town atmosphere."

In fact, that's what he and his family like most about the area. All four of them -- his wife, Elizabeth; daughter, Jennifer and son, Matthew -- really wanted to move to Maryland and Carroll County, he said.

"We wanted to come, all of us," he said. "We had heard some nice things about Maryland and about the school system, which is really great. We have met the absolute kindest, friendliest people.

"Everyone my wife has met is just friendly, friendly, friendly. We all just love it here."

But the desire to be in Carroll didn't make the move from Alabama any easier. It just sped up the process, he said.

"We came up here in a whirlwind," said L.J. "We left here on Saturday, arrived in Alabama on Sunday, finished packing, and I came up on Tuesday, and my wife and family arrived on Thursday.

"In less than two weeks, we had moved in."

The 116,839 square-foot Westminster store will include a garden center, a pharmacy, a snack bar and a one-hour photo lab among its 36 departments. In addition, this location will have a Fantastic Sam's hair salon, L.J. said.

"We'll be offering haircuts, perms and colorings," he said. "It's a family hair salon."

Information about Westminster's downtown merchants also will be available on a table near the front, he said.

More than 15 stores are expected to provide brochures, business cards and fliers for the display.

"I didn't do it for publicity," L.J. said. "It's just the right thing to do, to work together with the downtown businesses. We need to work together, and I hope we can do that."

The company also plans to offer a $1,000 scholarship to a Westminster area high school graduate every year as part of its community service, he said.

After months of preparation, the store's 230 associates are ready for the doors to open for their dry run Saturday.

Although the company is ready for business, the grand opening won't be until Nov. 2.

"We're just going to open the doors [Saturday] and see what happens," L.J. said. "It will give us a chance to test the systems and everything else."

The grand opening will feature local officials cutting a ribbon, bargains in the store and appearances by the Utz potato chip girl and the Goetz candy cow.

"There will be all kinds of things going on," L.J. said. "Just tons of stuff."

But despite the planning and preparation, L.J. said he's not sure how the opening will turn out.

"My expectations are good," he said. "I just don't know what to expect. I just expect good things and expect us to be busy."

Store hours will be 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

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