An hour prior to speaking to a standing room only group in the Worrell Professional Center at Wake Forest University, Mike Duke was standing in a local Walmart store, talking to a customer about a small, green chili pepper that she would like the retail giant to carry. “I hope by the end of the night, we have chili peppers that match up with any store in town,” said Duke. He never misses an opportunity to ask a customer for advice. “Every single customer is important, and even with 200 million, you can’t lose one of them.”
If you met Duke, you may be surprised to find out that he is President and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the largest company in the world. He easily blends in with Walmart customers. An engineer from a small town in Georgia, he’s competitive, but not flashy. Duke is passionate about people and has retail in his blood. He considers it “the greatest sport alive.”
His “sport” keeps getting bigger and more competitive. Today, Walmart has more stores outside of the United States than they did as a whole when Duke joined the company in 1995. Walmart is experiencing exponential global growth with more than one quarter of its business now outside of the U.S. Walmart has more than 8,600 stores in 15 countries and employs more than 2 million associates. Sales were $405 billion last year.
Even with those impressive numbers, Walmart is not standing still. “It’s not just the numbers,” said Duke. “It is about how we can have greater influence on customers and communities in the overall world in a positive way.”
A truly global company
Duke outlined four strategies guiding the next generation of Walmart. The first is to become a truly global company. “Talent development is the most important part of preparing to be this global company of the future,” said Duke who invited the President’s Global Council of Women Leaders to join him at Wake Forest to mentor and recruit students. Shortly after being promoted to Walmart’s top post, Duke formed his global council of 15 top female executives, with seven representing markets outside of the United States . He stressed the importance of advancing women at all levels of the business. “It’s not just the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s also the right thing for business. Look at the majority of customers at our stores—they are women.”
Over the next five years, Duke expects Walmart’s continued growth will create an additional 500,000 associate jobs around the world. He pointed out Stephanie Wong, Senior Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer of Walmart China. Wong was part of a Walmart leadership class in 1995. She said 100 percent of the local store managers in China are from China. The country is home to more than 300 stores including the largest Sam’s Club in the world. “We need to do a better job at leveraging and learning,” said Duke. The best ideas do not always come from the United States.”
Understanding and Overcoming Business Challenges
Understanding business challenges and overcoming them is another key strategy guiding the next generation of Walmart. Technology has brought a new level of price transparency for retailers, but Duke welcomes it. “I like our customers to know our prices and know our competitors’ prices. I think we will do better in a world of price transparency because the company that is most efficient and that delivers the best prices everyday will win.” Duke considers the evolution of e-commerce to be a significant challenge. “We are not where we want to be today,” he said. He stressed that Walmart is investing resources to improve the online customer experience.
Wake Forest University Schools of Business student Matthew Pulley (MBA ’12) asked how Walmart plans to leverage its strengths in the area of electronic commerce. Duke said, “Our competitive advantage is the fact that we have 8,000 points of distribution.” For example, Walmart’s Site-to-store program, where customers order merchandise online and pick it up at their local store, is more cost effective for the customer and the company than home delivery.
Even though Walmart is a major contributor to local communities, Duke wants the company to be a leader on major social issues. “We shouldn’t just be involved. We should be leading in these areas and that’s our commitment to our customers and to our communities.” He cited sustainability as an important area and discussed the concept of a sustainability index to allow customers to understand the carbon footprint of products when making buying decisions. Duke also singled out the issue of hunger as one that Walmart helps address with cash and food donations.
Keeping the Company Culture Strong
While Walmart operates in 15 countries around the world under various brand names, one thing never changes–founder Sam Walton’s original mission to save people money so they can live better. The millions of Walmart associates are charged with following three basic beliefs—respect for every individual, putting the customer first, and striving for excellence. Duke said the company is built on a foundation of integrity and it is vital to keep the company culture strong through the future.
The future of Walmart includes further global growth. On the day before Duke’s visit, the company announced plans to make an offer to buy Massmart Holdings, Ltd., the third-largest retailer in South Africa.
“Leading Global Growth” with Mike Duke, President and Chief Executive Officer, Wal-mart Stores, Inc. was the first presentation in the Leading Out Loud Executive Leadership Series of 2010-11 made possible by the generous support of the Broyhill Family Foundation of Lenoir, NC. The next Leading Out Loud speaker is Susan Ivey, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Reynolds American Inc., and President of RAI Services Company. Her presentation is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 4:00 p.m.