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Wal-Mart Executive Shares Keys to Company's Success

| October 14, 2008

Don Soderquist

What's the secret to Wal-Mart's success? Common sense, living out core values and acknowledging that the customer is the boss.

That was the message delivered to more than 200 business and community leaders at Regent University's Executive Leadership Series on October 14 featuring Don Soderquist, retired chief operating officer and senior vice president of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

"There's nothing that Wal-Mart did that any business can't do," Soderquist said. "The success of Wal-Mart is common sense. There's no magical formula."

Soderquist joined Wal-Mart in 1980 as executive vice president and served in several other executive positions until his appointment in early 1988 to vice chairman and chief operating officer. In January 1999 he was promoted to senior vice chairman of the corporation.

To give the audience a flavor for Wal-Mart's corporate culture, Soderquist invited several Wal-Mart store managers to lead everyone in the "Wal-Mart Cheer." And when the audience faltered in echoing a portion of the cheer, the managers started over from the beginning.

"This cheer shows the heart of the company and it's a constant reminder of who's the boss—the customer," Soderquist said.

In relating Wal-Mart's success, Soderquist explained that "it's a story about a man with a dream and $6,'s a story about providing's a story about giving millions of people an opportunity to save money and live's a story about living out the Golden's a story of walking the's a story of creating a family atmosphere...and finally, it's a story about accomplishing the impossible."

Wal-Mart's growth is nothing short of phenomenal. In 1972, the company was the 36th largest discount chain in America, with sales of $44 million. Twenty years later, Wal-Mart was the largest retailer in America with sales of $44 billion. And at the beginning of 2008, the company's sales topped $244 billion.

Soderquist said that in 1992, the year company founder Sam Walton passed away, people wondered if Wal-Mart could continue without his leadership. At the time, Soderquist was chief operating officer, and he said he was determined to keep Sam Walton's heritage alive.

"Sam was an unusual man. He was my friend and my confidante. I learned a lot from him, but Sam would be the first to tell you that he also learned a lot from me. He was always open and listening," Soderquist said.

"We kept the company's values alive by continuing to talk to our people about them," he went on. "We maintained the culture and values of our company that I believe are what distinguishes us from other companies. Today, Wal-Mart is still growing and still accomplishing what we were under Sam, which is reducing the cost of living for people in our markets."

Soderquist listed a dozen attributes for Wal-Mart's success:

-A vision that was more than financial
-A culture based on our values (which are rooted in Judeo-Christian principles)
-A "can-do" attitude
-A genuine respect for all our people
-A commitment to our customers
-Partnerships with our suppliers
-Investment in our communities
-A dedication to teamwork
-A continuing strategic focus
-A proactive approach to change
-Effective application of technology

According to Soderquist, the first three items reflect the heart of the company; the next five are about relationships with people and groups; and the final four revolve around excellence. In discussing them, Soderquist emphasized the value of relationships.

"What's the return on investment for investing in a person's life?" he asked. "My greatest joys are the relationships I've had with people in the company. Some may call me a mentor, but I call them my friends."

"The return on this kind of investment is infinite because it doesn't cost anything, and it's the most rewarding thing I've ever done," he said.

Soderquist issued a leadership challenge to the audience, asking them to do these things:

-Set your expectations high
-Determine what's really important
-Know your values and how they look
-Have a cardiac exam (heart check) frequently
-Be a role model of what you expect
-Stand up for what is right
-Be passionate about all that you do

"Ordinary people achieving extraordinary results—that's the secret of Wal-Mart," he said.

Soderquist published The Wal-Mart Way in 2005 to share the principles he felt led to the amazing growth of Wal-Mart. In 2006, Soderquist completed his second book, Live, Learn, Lead—To Make a Difference, in which he shares more on his life's philosophy.

Regent University's Executive Leadership Series monthly luncheons provide an opportunity for local leaders to glean insight from the most innovative voices of leadership from the world of business, politics, academia, entertainment, government, the military and religion. For information, visit

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Mindy Hughes, Public Relations

Phone: 757.352.4095 Fax: 757.352.4888

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