Sunday, March 16, 2014

Dispatch from The Road: Bentonville, Arkansas

Seated at Gate A-6 of the Northwest Arkansas Airport, I find myself with a bit of time before my flight to New Orleans via Houston.  The snow is falling here, kind of hard, and it presages what the East Coast should expect later today and tomorrow.  The reports are that 13 days of school were canceled in Bentonville this year due to the hard winter and modest means to combat it.  Such is the life of a Southern town.

This is however, quite unlike any other Southern Town, as it is the Worldwide Headquarters of the world's largest retailer--Walmart--along with Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Trucking.  It really is quite remarkable, what has grown here in Northwest Arkansas along the 540 corridor. 

I am here because my friend asked me to come.  He's a VP at Walmart and he asked me to talk to a group of managers on his team about leadership and the like, the sort of things one accumulates in a 21 year career in the military.  Some of it translates over to business, some not so much.  I concentrated my remarks on the former.  Walmart HQ reflects the culture created by its founder--no frills.  If you want to know how Walmart is able to keep its prices as low as it does, a walk around corporate HQ will help.  Don't get me wrong, it is a pleasant, serviceable atmosphere where people are happy and work hard within a well-defined corporate culture. But there are no frills here, no wasted energy.  Shareholders should be happy.

My friend was lucky enough to have the Navy buy him a Harvard MBA a few years ago, back when the Navy thought it wise to keep its rising talent by doing such things.  I remember thinking then that there will be dubious return on investment in the program, and I think that has come to pass.  This guy worked for me on the ship I commanded, and he was the star among stars.  Shortly before I left, he told me he was going to leave the Navy.  I think he thought I would be really disappointed in him, but I wasn't.  I was very happy for him and his family, and I knew that the sky would be the limit for them going forward.  It has been, and he has done very well for himself, putting the same drive and intelligence that I enjoyed to work trying to advance the interests of Walmart.

The talk I gave went really well, and the managers had awesome questions...there were a lot of issues particular to their business that they sought my thoughts on, and I did my best to keep up.  They were a great bunch.  Yesterday morning, we went to the monthly Saturday Morning Meeting at HQ, which is a ritual going back to the Sam Walton days.  Then it was more of a management meeting, now it serves as a great way to drive out corporate messaging throughout the business and to get alignment.  They also invite guest speakers, and yesterday's was (coincidentally) Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense.  He did a great job and was very well-received.

After the meeting, we went to Crystal Bridges Art Museum, an unbelievably beautiful Walton Family funded oasis of great art in Northwest AR.  The buildings were stunning, their beauty exceeded only by the priceless treasures within.  After a bit of cultural exposure, we wallowed in local culture by hitting a famous BBQ Joint.  After a quiet night in, I am now headed to New Orleans for a bit if bidness tomorrow followed by dinner with another Navy stalwart in the French Quarter.

I will return to an empty house, save for the dogs and cats who've been looked after by a dutiful house sitter.  The Kittens are luxuriating in the Caribbean on a friend's luxe catamaran, and we'll all be back together next Saturday night.  I'll be on my own Tuesday through Saturday, and I hope to muddle through. 

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