The Sam Walton saga: a man who got it all?


"In Sam We Trust (The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Wal-Mart is Devouring America)," by Bob Ortega. New York Times Business. 384 pages. $35.95.

Some years ago when Wal-Mart attacked Vermont, I did a cartoon showing the inside of one of its soulless stores with a sign saying the State of Vermont was now in Aisle 32. One of the editors in Rutland wondered if we would get sued, but after reading Mr. Ortega's book, I'm sure Walton would have considered the cartoon high praise.

This is a fine business history, from Walton's first Ben Franklin store, then his Wal-Marts across the South, and finally to his chain of 2,200 stores and more than 450,000 employees. Why did Sam Walton do all this?

Ortega, a professional business reporter for the Wall Street Journal, lets the reader ask that riddle. From his beginnings in Bentonville, Ark., to domination in retailing, a lot of eggs got broken. Something drove Walton, and amazingly, it wasn't money. Some people say they want it all, poetically. Sam Walton wanted it all, really. He died the richest man in America, yet never lost a folksy touch, willing to gab with the clerks in women's nightwear just like a local storekeeper.

His models were the E.J. Korvettes and King Cullens of the '50s, firms that promised savings if you, the customer, were willing to do all the work. By 1973, he had 55 stores across the South. The following year, he had 78 stores expanding in all directions.

His competition was furious, but he was furiouser. His execs stayed in fleabags in New York and walked to purchasing meetings rather than take cabs. He won tough fights with organizers from the Teamsters, in which he announced to

workers that it was no union or no job.

He said he was buying American in place of cheap foreign goods, but this was done much less than claimed. His practices were so sharp that even Hillary Clinton left the board of directors after a few years. George Bush, on the other hand, still goggle-eyed at the automatic checkout, gave Sam the Presidential Medal of Freedom ... whatever that is.

And then, in 1992, he died. At which point the reader will realize that there is nothing in his life about music, theater, literature, or even an appreciation of quality in the products he sold. Just retailing.

Price-cutting. Warehousing. Bigger stores. Faster checkouts. It's a little sad, actually. It doesn't seem as if his family even knew him.

The company is now run by men in his image. Bulling state and local governments out of the way, riding over the objection of cities and towns, they ruin countless small merchants with scarcely a thought. They react blandly to the accusation that they are selling goods made by exploited child labor.

In the middle of this, Ortega details the pathetically laughable Kathie Lee Gifford, trying to make customers think she cared that a pair of jean bearing her name selling for $10 cost 10 cents to make. When this was proved by Charles Kernaghan's New Labor Committee, Wal-Mart shrugged.

The new execs are cheap and mean, an attitude they claim is Sam Walton's heritage. They may be right. You decide.

Jeff Danziger is a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times TC Syndicate and a novelist. He has never been in a Wal-Mart in his life.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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