In the spirit of full disclosure, I neither work for Wal-Mart nor have invested in its stock. However, yesterday morning I attended a presentation at the World Affairs Council of Maine by Richard Coyle, Director of Wal-Mart’s International Corporate Affairs, which gave me reason to reflect on the question posed above.
Having heard so much bad publicity about Wal-Mart, I wanted to hear first-hand how a Wal-Mart executive described the company, its goals, its strategies, its values, and its Modus Operandi.
Everybody seems to know that Wal-Mart is a bad company, right?
Try doing a Google search, as I did, on such phrases as “Wal-Mart bad company” or “Wal-Mart world’s worst company” – and you’ll find countless Blogs and news stories (actually 2,410,000 and 1,320,000 respectively) dedicated to exposing Wal-Mart as one of the worst companies around.
I wanted to start looking at Wal-Mart, not just in terms of the ways the critics described the company, but in a larger context. Thus my purpose here is not to “pile on” Wal-Mart and recount all the complaints against them. You can do your own reading and may have your own horror story. Nor is it to defend them. I just don’t know enough. But I think it would be good to stand back and look at Wal-Mart in its totality.
The most common complaints are about employment policies and pricing policies, both of which seem reprehensible to critics.
I remember the fear (and, yes, some loathing too) when Wal-Mart announced its plans to put up a store only a few miles from my local town of Bath, Maine. How could the small stores in our little town possibly survive the juggernaut that is Wal-Mart with its Everyday Low Prices? It was a time of soul searching for the owners of these stores.
It turns out that many of them did survive and have done okay. Wal-Mart’s entry into the local market forced them to take stock of the strengths and weaknesses of their businesses and for some, to rethink the market they were trying to sell to and their business strategy for creating value for customers even in the face of what they knew would be lower priced competition.
Other towns and states have tried blocking the advance of Wal-Mart by enacting restrictive employment laws that apply only to “big box” retailers (i.e., Wal-Mart).
Noble enterprises, by definition uplift ALL their constituencies – their customers, their employees, their suppliers, their communities – and their shareholders.
As for the customer dimension, I don’t know what the morale surveys say about the two million employees of Wal-Mart – whether the majority of them feel uplifted by their experience of working at Wal-Mart, but that would seem to be a valuable piece of the puzzle in determining whether Wal-Mart is in fact the “world’s worst company” as some of the Blogs claim – or conversely perhaps actually a contender to be a Noble Enterprise. I’d also be interested to learn what these people were doing before they began to work for Wal-Mart – and how much they have grown their skills – and advanced while at Wal-Mart.
My forthcoming book includes a case story of a company that uplifted its employees and simultaneously its profits. But what about uplifting customers, communities and suppliers?
It would seem, just based on the numbers, that Wal-Mart has been in the business of uplifting its customers – some 49 million weekly – by providing them with affordable products they need for living a good life. That has to count for something on the Nobility scale.
With its extensive supply chain, Wal-Mart also has a big impact on its suppliers. That’s a whole area for discussion. The critics point to problems vendors experience as suppliers to Wal-Mart, or to vendors who reportedly do not have ethical business practices, something that Coyle says they are addressing with a Supplier Audit program.
He also reported that Wal-Mart is undertaking in several countries to help farmers apply more sophisticated techniques to reduce spoilage for example (which in India amounts to a staggering 75% of the food grown) which will benefit the farmers (and consumers) as well as Wal-Mart.
It will be interesting years from now to see how history treats Wal-Mart – as villain or pioneering Noble Enterprise that has benefited many segments of (global) society.