Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Glass to retire as Wal-Mart director

“Mephistopheles” is retiring from the Wal-Mart board of directors, effective June 5.

Actually, it’s just David Glass, and he’s not really the Devil. If you’re a Wal-Mart fan, you probably think he’s more like an archangel, considering all the positive things that occurred during his watch as a board member since 1977 and as president and CEO of the Bentonville, Ark.-based giant from 1988 to 2000.

In many ways, Glass was instrumental in making Wal-Mart into a retail giant. He was one of Sam Walton’s early disciples, joining the chain when it had just 123 stores. It was to Glass, not Jack Shewmaker, that Walton entrusted the legacy of his chain. Glass helped engineer Wal-Mart’s vaunted distribution system, its reliance on information technology, and the launch of Sam’s Club and the company’s supercenter format. He also began Wal-Mart’s international expansion, with an acquisition in Mexico. “Retail is detail,” it is often said, and for Glass the “devil was in the details.”

During Glass’s 33-year tenure, Wal-Mart grew from $340 million in sales to $401 billion. Global store count grew to 7,873 stores.

Known for his dry wit, Glass was not flashy. He appeared uncomfortable doing many of the public appearances a corporate leader must endure. In that way, he was no Sam Walton. But in his deep baritone voice he rarely faltered in defense of Wal-Mart.

Which brings me to why I called him Mephistopheles: In 1992, Glass was interviewed by NBC’s “Dateline” news show about the company’s “Buy America” sourcing program and its purchases of goods made in overseas factories that allegedly employed underage workers.

Clearly not prepared for the questioning and the video evidence presented to him, Glass cut off the interview. But what struck many observers at the time was the tone NBC set for the interview. Its own correspondent was filmed straight on. But Glass was filmed from a camera angle just above the floor that dramatically accentuated his thick and bushy eyebrows and his quavering jowls. He came off like the devil incarnate.

Wal-Mart, and David Glass, learned from that experience that they needed to be more media savvy. Not angelic. Just savvy.

Check out Chain Store Age's story on Glass here.

-- Murray Forseter


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