Can Wal-mart get the magic back? In the four years since Wal-mart’s founder died of bone cancer, CEO David Glass has invested billions of borrowed dollars in businesses that have earned relatively low returns. Glass, age 60, seemed to be a good choice for CEO when Sam Walton, at 69, tapped him to take over in 1988. Investors have knocked down Wal-Mart’s market value by $7.7 billion since the day Sam died. Sam built it from nothing to $59.3 billion.
In the past year, key executives, particularly Sam’s favorites, have left behind Wal-Mart to pursue jobs elsewhere. The biggest shocker came at the end of March when Bill Fields, Glass’s heir apparent, told his boss he was quitting to become CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment. Fields headed Wal-Mart’s main operations and was the company’s closest link to the glory days. A hometown boy born and bred in Bentonville, Arkansas, Fields was hired by Sam straight out of the University of Arkansas 24 years ago. He became a sort of surrogate son, and was generally considered to be Wal-Mart’s star manager in operations and merchandising. Fields earned $590,000 a year to run a $68 billion business at Wal-mart. At Blockbuster, which revenues about $3.3 billion, Fields is expected to make much more. Yet, Fields insists money wasn’t the issue for leaving. Field’s archival, Sam’s Club President Dean Sanders, quit last fall. Wal-Mart’s two most likely candidates for CEO are gone which puts Wal-Mart’s future more in the hands of Glass.
Glass has lifted Wal-Mart’s long-term debt from $1.7 billion in 1992 to $8.5 billion. Glass plans to make Wal-Mart America’s largest grocer by saturating the country with “super centers,” emporiums that combine a supermarket and general-merchandise store under one roof. Sam lived to see Wal-Mart open only a few super centers. But right after he died, Glass Cranked up the spending and in four years has expanded to 260 stores. They bring in about $13 billion in revenues a year. Glass intends to add more than 100 stores a year. Meanwhile, hundreds of the conventional stores are being closed: 330 are shuttered.
Glass believes that Wal-Mart’s big growth opportunity is super centers. The super centers seem to be Wal-Mart’s one legitimate growth-and two big slow-growing businesses. Sam’s Club, its second biggest business, is another drag on Wal-Mart stock. This division has decelerated ever since Sam died. Instead of shifting more effort toward reviving this area, in 1994, Wal-Mart bought Pace Membership Warehouses (99 stores) from K-Mart. This business has been a losing proposition from the beginning due to the fact the stores are poorly located and desperately need refurbishing.
Wal-Mart is trying to find its key to success overseas. Glass has steered Wal-Mart into Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and a few places in Asia. Wal-Mart had a joint venture to go into China, but that collapsed in March. So far, Wal-Mart’s 277 stores outside the US. generate only 4% of corporate revenues. The international division is yet to earn a dime.
There has been some question in the reliability of CEO David Glass recently. Retirement rumors have gone around, mainly because Glass is a baseball fanatic. He is already chairman of the Kansas City Royals. A few months ago, Glass registered with the SEC to sell some Wal-Mart stock. Glass, whose stock is presently worth about $63 million, did not sell.
Wal-Mart’s sales have more than doubled to nearly $100 billion-an unmatched feat in the annals of the Fortune 500. In the forth quarter, Wal-Mart’s first earnings drop-off in the 100 quarters since Sam Walton began with little to nothing in 1970. The company was built on simplicity-yet Wal-Mart today, No. 4 on the Fortune 500, is diversified, unpredictable, and very difficult to manage.
Reference: FORTUNE 500 magazine, May 1996 issue