Samuel Moore “Sam” Walton was born on March 29, 1918, in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, to Thomas Gibson Walton and Nancy Lee. They lived on the family farm but did not make enough money to rear their family. Tom Walton worked for his brother at Walton Mortgage Company, an agent for Metropolitan Life Insure, and foreclosed on farms during the Great Depression.
A second son named James was born in 1921. Sometime afterwards, the family moved to Orlando, Florida. They continued moving “from one small town to another for several years” and ended up in Shelbina, Missouri, by the time Sam was in the eighth grade. There Sam became an Eagle Scout, the youngest in the history of the state. Walton became a recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award when he was an adult. The family moved from Shelbina to Columbia, Missouri, and Sam did numerous jobs to help the family. “He milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver Columbia Daily Tribune newspapers on a paper route. In addition, he also sold magazine subscriptions.” He was voted “Most Versatile Boy” upon his graduation from David H. Hickman High School in Columbia.
Hoping to “find a better way to support his family,” Walton attended the University of Missouri as an ROTC cadet and continued to work “various odd jobs, including waiting tables in exchange for meals.” He graduated in 1940 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics; “he was voted `permanent president’ of the class.”
Walton’s first job out of college was as a management trainee for J. C. Penney in Des Moines, Iowa, for $75 per month. He worked for J.C. Penney about 18 months and “resigned in 1942 in anticipation of being inducted into the military for service in World War II. In the meantime, he worked at a DuPont munitions plant near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Soon afterwards, Walton joined the military in the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps, supervising security at aircraft plants and prisoner of war camps. In this position he served at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah” and “eventually reached the rank of Captain.”
Fresh out of the military in 1945 at age 26, Walton “took over management of his first variety store.” He used $5,000 saved during his time in the Army and a $20,000 loan from his father-in-law to purchase a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport, Arkansas. There Walton “pioneered many concepts that became crucial to his success” and “made sure the shelves were consistently stocked with a wide range of goods.” His second story was just down the street – a tiny “Eagle” department store.
Walton’s sales volume grew from $80,000 to $225,000 in three years and got the landlord’s attention. The family of P.K. Holmes “had a history in retail.” He like what he saw and wanted “to reclaim the store (and franchise rights) for his son”; therefore, “he refused to renew the lease.” Holmes forced Walton out of the business but purchased the store’s inventory and fixtures for $50,000. Walton considered the price to be fair but gained some early business lessons in the deal. Walton had a year left on his lease at the Ben Franklin store in Newport.
Walton, his wife Helen, and his father-in-law purchased a new location in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. They opened for business on May 9, 1950. The store was previously doing $72,000 in sales, and Walton increased the sales to “$105,000 in the first year and then $140,000 and $175,000.”
Sam Walton learned to delegate responsibility because there were 220 miles between his two stores. When he succeeded, he became enthusiastic about opening in more locations. His enthusiasm was helped along by the postwar baby boom. Walton spent many hours scouting new locations and decided to purchase an airplane to make traveling easier. His brother James “Bud” Walton was a pilot during the war; Walton and his son John later became pilots and logged “thousands of hours scouting locations and expanding the family business.”
On July 2, 1962, Walton and his brother opened the first true Wal-Mart in Rogers, Arkansas. It was called the Wal-Mart Discount City store. They later teamed with Stefan Dasbach “leading to the first of many stores to come.” Walton “launched a determined effort to market American-made products. Included in the effort was a willingness to find American manufacturers who could supply merchandise for the entire Wal-Mart chain at a price low enough to meet the foreign competition.
Walton’s “one-stop-shopping center format” was based on the innovative concept of another chain store called Meijer’s. Instead of locating in larger cities, Walton built them in smaller towns. He “emphasized logistics, particularly locating stores within a day’s drive proximity to Wal-Mart’s regional warehouses, and distributed through its own trucking service. Buying in volume and efficient delivery permitted sale of discounted name brand merchandise. Thus, sustained growth – from 1977’s 190 stores to 1985’s 800 – was achieved.”
On February 14, 1943, Sam Walton married Helen Robson, and the couple became the parents of four children: Samuel Robson (born in 1944), John Thomas (1946-2005), James Carr (Jim) (born in 1948), and Alice Louise (born in 1949). Sam and Helen were active members of the First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville where Sam “served as a Ruling Elder and a Sunday School teacher for high school age students. Walton “supported various charitable causes” and gave “substantial contributions to the church.”
Walton died of multiple myeloma (a type of blood cancer) on Sunday, April 5, 1992, in Little Rock, Arkansas. His remains are interred at the Bentonville Cemetery.
“The news of his death was relayed by satellite to all 1,960 Wal-Mart stores. At the time, his company employed 380,000 people. Annual sales of nearly $50 billion flowed from 1,735 Wal-Marts, 212 Sam’s Clubs, and 13 Supercenters.”
Walton’s wife and children inherited Walton’s ownership of Wal-Mart. Rob Walton became the Chairman of Wal-Mart, and John Walton was director until he died in a plane crash in 2005. His other children are not involved in direct management of the company but have voting power as shareholders, but his son Jim is chairman of Arvest Bank. Until 2005 there were five members of the Walton family listed in the top ten richest people in the United States. Ann Kroenke and Nancy Laurie, daughters of Sam’s brother Bud, hold smaller shares in the company.