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Chapter 8: Learn From Competitors, but Remain Faithful to the Vision


There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.


Most everything I've done I've copied from someone else.


Even the quickest glance at the 2002 Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest individuals is likely to reveal a startling fact: Five of the wealthiest people in the world share the same last name. This is because they are related—by marriage or birth—to one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the twentieth century—a folksy merchandiser who loved to compete by taking on huge competitors. He was what one American president called "an American original," and his unique rags-to-riches story is the stuff of legend.

His name, of course, was Sam Walton.

Born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, Thomas Walton was a farmer, banker, and farm-loan appraiser who did not believe in taking on debt. The secret to success, Thomas told his children, was "work, work, work." His son Sam learned that lesson well. As a child, he also got his first taste of retailing—on the customer's side of the counter when family holidays included visits to local stores.

Sam Walton kept visiting stores for the rest of his life, long after he opened his own first store (in 1945). It was a wise practice, since the fast-moving retail industry threatened to leave behind those who failed to spot trends and adapt to them. Walton did not get left behind. He was constantly tinkering with his products and his presentation. And although his early stores were successful, Walton did not hesitate to make a radical change in his retail formula. In 1962—the same year in which Kmart, Woolco, and Target got their starts—Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store. Discounting was then sweeping across America, and Walton wanted his piece of this new retailing phenomenon.

Former Wal-Mart CEO David Glass, who worked with Walton for many years, remembers him as someone who was driven "to improve something every day." This was more than a philosophical stance; it was a practical necessity: His first stores simply were not as good as those of his competitors. "At the start," Walton later admitted, "we were so amateurish, and so far behind." Over the next four decades, though, the company founded by Sam Walton would become not only the world's largest retailer, but also the world's largest company. (In 2002, Wal-Mart topped the list of Fortune 500 companies.)

How did he do it? According to Glass, "Sam's philosophies were really pretty basic, pretty simple, pretty straightforward—which is probably why they worked as well as they did."

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