Raised on a farm in America’s heartland, he came of age during the Great Depression. This probably explained his predisposition for frugality. Standing five feet nine inches and weighing only 130 pounds when he played football in high school, Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, learned early the value of working hard. Working hard leads to winning. And as the quarterback on his high school football team, he won a lot. In fact, they went on to become state champs. Whether through hard work, luck or just an unflappable optimism, Walton got so used to winning all the time that he couldn’t fully visualize what losing looked like. He simply couldn’t imagine it. Walton even philosophized that always thinking about winning probably became a self-fulfilling prophecy for him. Even during the Depression, he had a highly successful paper route that earned him a decent wage for the times. By the time Sam Walton died, he had taken Wal-Mart from a single store in Bentonville, Arkansas, and turned it into a retail colossus with $44 billion in annual sales with 40 million people shopping in the stores per week. But it takes more than a competitive nature, a strong work ethic and a sense of optimism to build a company big enough to equal the twenty-third-largest economy in the world. Walton wasn’t the first person with big dreams to start a small business.
Sam Walton did not invent the low-cost shopping model. The five-and-dime variety store concept had existed for decades and Kmart and Target opened their doors the same year as Wal-Mart, in 1962. Discounting was already a $2 billion industry when Walton decided to build his first Wal-Mart. There was plenty of competition beyond Kmart and Target, some of it much better funded and with better locations and seemingly better opportunities for success than Wal-Mart. Sam Walton didn’t even invent a better way of doing things than everyone else. He admitted to “borrowing” many of his ideas about the business from Sol Price, the founder of Fed-Mart, a retail discounter founded in Southern California during the 1950s.
For Sam Walton, there was something else, a deeper purpose, cause or belief that drove him. More than anything else, Walton believed in people. He believed that if he looked after people, people would look after him. The more Wal-Mart could give to employees, customers and the community, the more that employees, customers and the community would give back to Wal-Mart. “We’re all working together; that’s the secret,” said Walton.