Under the giant's shadow


Bentonville: Another side of Sam Walton's huge success is revealed in the Arkansas town where he first got the idea that revolutionized retailing.

April 16, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BENTONVILLE, Ark. - With an oceanic parking lot and the same sort of sign that marks its Supercenter up the street, Wal-Mart's headquarters looks more like a giant discount store than the home of the largest corporation in the world.

Tucked away in this remote corner of northwest Arkansas, Wal-Mart has in just 40 years combined ruthless efficiency and relentless expansion to surpass the giants of business, General Motors and Exxon-Mobil. This spring, it was listed at the top of the Fortune 500.

But, if the company's literature is to be believed, the soul of Wal-Mart's success lies not in the legion of MBAs at corporate headquarters but in an old five-and-dime on the courthouse square where Sam Walton first got the idea that revolutionized retailing and forever changed life in rural America.

Wal-Mart wraps itself in the folksy mythology of its founder, a man who favored blue jeans and baseball caps, lived to hunt quail after church on Sundays, once danced a hula on Wall Street, and drove a 1979 Ford F-150 pickup even after he became the richest man in the world.

But a look at Bentonville today displays another side of Walton's huge success. Today, the downtown five-and-dime that gave Walton his start is a museum piece, carefully preserved as the Wal-Mart Visitors Center. As in small towns across the nation, the kinds of businesses that give a downtown life have moved out - joining the Wal-Mart on the edge of town.

Half a century ago, no one thought that possible - either that big discount stores could thrive in the countryside or that little downtowns would wither.

"I guess in all my years, what I heard more often than anything was: a town of less than 50,000 population cannot support a discount store for very long," Walton wrote in "Sam's Rules for Building a Business," the 10 commandments of Wal-Mart.

From the looks of Bentonville, still a town of less than 50,000 people, exactly the opposite is true today. An immense Wal-Mart Supercenter thrives on Sam Walton Boulevard, the commercial strip on the edge of town, along with dozens of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores and strip malls as far as the eye can see.

But to those who have tried to do business in downtown Bentonville in recent years, the idea of succeeding in the age of Wal-Mart with a store like Walton's five-and-dime is a sick joke.

"Sam Walton? Nope, he'd never make it," says Ken Wenzinger, whose video store/second-hand clothing shop on Main Street closed after a year. "There's just not enough traffic to get business going downtown."

Wal-Mart is widely vilified for destroying downtown business districts from one end of the nation to the other. Whether Wal-Mart is truly to blame, or other forces joined in, Bentonville's business district hasn't escaped the fate.

On the square, an office supply company is still in business, as are a touristy knickknack store and a cafe next to Walton's old five-and-dime.

But that's about it. Bentonville Furniture Inc., which once boasted "four floors of fine furniture," has been gutted. The shoe repair shop is gone, as is the doughnut shop. The dry cleaner closed. Western Auto closed. Even the post office has moved to Walton Boulevard.

"It's totally changed," says Misty Vandiver, a waitress at the Station Cafe who has lived in Bentonville for all but two of her 25 years. "Wal-Mart has taken over, pretty much."

Downtown Bentonville wasn't always that way. Pictures in the Wal-Mart museum show a bustling square in 1950, when Walton opened his Ben Franklin franchise there.

The business prospered for more than a decade, but Walton grew convinced that discount stores were the wave of the future.

He figured that people in rural areas would travel a bit to get lower prices, and he could get their business if he put a discount store on a highway in the right spot between some small towns.

Walton went to the Ben Franklin corporate headquarters in Chicago and pitched the idea to the company's executives. They thought he was crazy, so he went on his own, creating the first Wal-Mart in 1962 in Rogers, Ark., just down the road from Bentonville.

It worked, and the company expanded quickly. Walton flew his own prop plane and would circle over an area he thought was ripe for a new store. He'd spot the right piece of land, swoop down, buy it and roll out another store.

By 1979, according to the company's Web site, Wal-Mart had 276 stores, 21,000 employees and nearly $1.25 billion in annual sales. (Last year, Wal-Mart matched those sales in one day.)

Mr. Sam, as he was known, died in 1992, but the company has preserved his legacy in the museum. His pickup sits in a corner, with a stuffed version of Ol' Roy, his dog, lying in the truck's bed. Plaques, medals and commendations line the walls and trophy cases, and videos tell the story of his life.

After he died, the company moved his office, exactly as it was, to the museum and encased it in Plexiglas.

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