The world of retail is tough, nitty gritty business. How does ethics play in this world? And how does technology impact the issues? We will explore these questions through our interviews in this issue.
My interest in this sector started with a trip to Wal-Mart headquarters several years ago. We were invited to the famous “Saturday morning meeting,” where executives review the numbers from the previous week and deal with challenging issues in their business. They invite associates of the company to participate in these meetings. They also took us on a tour of the automated distribution center, where a package from a vendor arrives in a warehouse, automatically passes through a gigantic switching yard, and is loaded onto the right truck destined for one of the regional superstores, all in space of 30 minutes.
Wal-Mart has been identified by Jim Collins (Good to Great) and Fortune Magazine as one of the great companies of our era. By some measures it is the largest company in the world — 90 percent of Americans will shop at Wal-Mart this year according to one count. Their headquarters are modest, and some aspects of their ethics are exemplary.
Yet Wal-Mart is also one of the most vilified companies, leading to books, TV programs, and business articles characterizing them as the ultimate bully. Is this just because Wal-Mart is so large, or is the challenge deeper than that?
Donald G. Soderquist was the chief operating officer of Wal-Mart during their period of tremendous growth from 1990 till 2002. He is the subject of this issue’s conversation. We asked him hard questions, trying to get the feel for what it’s like to be the giant of the industry. It doesn’t take long to see that he is the ultimate cheerleader for Wal-Mart. Some of his answers are a bit “corporate,” but we believe they provide a good insight into a company with some excellent practices and some that seem less so. Kenman Wong, our ethics advisor, joined me for this interview.
To contrast this, I made a midwinter trek to Iowa to talk with Frederick R. Greiner, the president of a family-owned chain of 90 grocery stores in America’s heartland. As I walked with Fred through their version of the automated warehouse (far more sophisticated than I was expecting, but dwarfed by the Wal-Mart capability), Fred addressed each of the warehouse workers by name. He stopped to pick up the one stray piece of wood on the otherwise immaculate warehouse floor. We conducted the interview in his interior office in a small building near the warehouse.
The contrast between Wal-Mart and Fareway Stores made me wonder about the question of the ideal size for a business. For some businesses, at least, being large enough to provide variety at a reasonable price, and small enough to provide personal service seems like the sweet spot.
I have been particularly saddened this week by the shooting deaths on the campus of Northern Illinois University. My wife and I met there working on the student newspaper staff together. It has been helpful to participate in electronic conversation with a community of people (former Northern Star staff members) who have been gone from the university for more than 40 years. Technology has provided a powerful tool for dealing with an unexplainable tragedy.
PS This summer we will celebrate the completion of 10 years in publication. We invite readers to submit reflections on “What I have learned from Ethix,” for a special 10th anniversary issue. Send comments to email@example.com, and we will include selected ones for publication.