Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and one of the most successful merchants of his time, died yesterday at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital in Little Rock. He was 74.
A spokeswoman at the hospital, where Mr. Walton was admitted a week ago, would not disclose the cause of death, nor would a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
Mr. Walton, declared the wealthiest man in America by Forbes magazine in 1985, had long struggled against two types of cancer, hairy-cell leukemia, which weakens the immune system by attacking white blood cells, and a bone-marrow cancer called multiple myeloma.
Mr. Walton opened the first Wal-Mart Discount City in 1962 in Rogers, Ark., a small city in the Ozarks. By 1991, the chain had passed Sears, Roebuck & Co. to become the nation's largest retailer. On April 1, it had 1,735 stores in 42 states, as well as two in Mexico.
[The company's first two Maryland stores opened last November, in Easton and in Prince Frederick; others are planned.]
Mr. Walton created Wal-Mart with the idea, once mocked by retailers, that large discount stores could thrive in non-urban areas. A gifted, homespun orator, he entranced legions of low-paid loyal workers with a simple refrain -- help customers, cut costs and share profits.
Wal-Mart's headquarters, in contrast to the 110-story Sears Tower on the edge of Chicago's Loop, remain a box-like warehouse and general office in Bentonville, Ark.
Wal-Mart began to sell its stock to the public in 1970. As Wall Street discovered the company's unbroken pattern of high profits and fast growth, the price of Wal-Mart's stock began to soar in the late 1970s, and the Walton family's wealth with it.
The family fortune includes $23 billion in Wal-Mart stock alone, which provides more than $90 million in annual dividends.
The Waltons also own seven banks and five newspapers in Arkansas. While the Walton name is hardly as well known as Rockefeller or Kennedy, the family is believed to be the nation's wealthiest.
Wal-Mart investors have also enjoyed a bounty. From 1981 to 1991, the company's shares produced an astounding average yearly return of 46.8 percent, including dividends and increases in the share price.
Wal-Mart's rapid growth, built on high sales and low prices, brought financial ruin to hundreds of small-town merchants on Main Streets across the South and Midwest.
As Wal-Mart's reputation grew, Mr. Walton often faced bitter resistance in communities where he planned to open stores. Yet, his promises to attract shoppers, assist charities and provide jobs almost always prevailed.
Mr. Walton always worked hard at shaping his work force, using cheers, rap songs and payment policies to urge employees to be frugal in their jobs and friendly toward customers.
Bonuses were paid to all employees in stores where stealing and other inventory losses were kept below 2 percent of sales.
Mr. Walton set the tone at work, often beginning his mornings at 4:30 and working long days from a cramped, Spartan office in Bentonville.
"This is a man who was at work at 4:30 in the morning, had warmth and charm throughout the day, an interest in his customers, and who treated his associates well as persons, not just as clerks and salespeople," said Walter F. Loeb, a retailing consultant who first met Mr. Walton in 1976.
Mr. Walton always referred to his employees as associates.