Sam Walton was a good old boy and also America's richest man

August 02, 1992|By John Schmeltzer | John Schmeltzer,Chicago Tribune

SAM WALTON: MADE IN AMERICA, MY STORY. Sam Walton with John Huey. Doubleday.

262 pages. $22.50.

SAM WALTON: THE INSIDE STORY OF AMERICA'S RICHEST MAN. Vance H. Trimble. Dutton.

308 pages. $19.95. "Hello, friends, I'm Sam Walton, founder and chairman of Wal-Mart Stores."

No prelude, no justification, just hello. The folksy, easy-reading tone of the autobiography of Sam Walton, a down-home good old boy, is established in the first sentence of the book's foreword.

From that point on, Walton and co-author John Huey take readers through the amazing story of the rise of the nation's premier retail company and the equally amazing tale of the nation's wealthiest individual.

The authorized version of Sam Walton's story, in many cases, sits side-by-side with Vance Trimble's unauthorized version, which appeared about a year and a half ago.

Other than being stories about the same retailing legend, the similarities between the books are few.

Walton's autobiography is filled with anecdotes of his climb from obscurity as the owner of a Ben Franklin dime store in Newport, Mo., to his run-in with Ben Franklin executives when they told him he couldn't open another Wal-Mart, to taking what would become the nation's largest retailer public.

Mr. Trimble's book is filled with detail -- so much detail that it likely will be used as a resource to check whether Walton ever had been involved with or done one or another thing. Whether dates are accurate or the information exactly correct is debatable. Wal-Mart executives say his book falls short on those counts.

But it will be Walton's book that researchers turn to as the authoritative voice on the rise of Wal-Mart Stores and on his life, starting out in hardscrabble Oklahoma.

Besides discussing the legacy he leaves in the retailing juggernaut, Walton alludes to the other legacy some say he left -- the mass destruction of the old downtown retail districts in small-town America. After the new Wal-Mart opened on many a town's outskirts, downtown storefronts went dark as customers opted for Sam's way.

But Walton, who got his retailing start in a five-and-dime variety store, sees the phenomenon as only a man with a vision to build an empire could see it: forcing regional variety-store chains either to enter discounting themselves or leave town. He offers no apology for the destruction his stores wrought:

Whenever we put a Wal-Mart store into a town, customers would just flock to us from the variety stores. It didn't take those stores long to figure out that if they were going to stay in business against his Wal-Mart, they had better start discounting themselves.

"Now most of these guys already had distribution centers and systems in place, while we had to build one from scratch. So on paper we really didn't stand a chance. What happened was that they didn't really commit to discounting. They held on to their old variety-store concepts too long. . . . But it's the intimate anecdotes and orderly nature of the story that set his autobiography apart from Mr. Trimble's book. There also is the rich detail contained in messages to his grandchildren and great grandchildren about holding to the values that helped make Wal-Mart great.

Because the book was written as Walton was losing his battle with cancer, it offers much introspection by a man trying to gauge the legacy left his family, his company and his nation.

In the book's final chapter, completed only two weeks before his death, Walton searches his soul for what he accomplished in his 74 years.

"I'm really sick these days," he writes. "Here's how I look at it: My life has been a tradeoff. . . . But in the larger sense -- the life and death sense -- did I make the right choices?"

It's a question readers will have to decide as they read his book, which, like Wal-Mart, joins the legacy Sam Walton has left America.

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