Even as it copes with the shifting retail landscape, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) remains the most dominant force in global retail today, 54 years after its founding. As is the case with other renowned American companies, Wal-Mart is in many ways a reflection of its visionary founder -- Sam Walton.
Equally known for his business acumen as for his extreme wealth, Walton's high-profile public life produced a fountain of interviews, with quotes distilling many of his most important insights across a wide range of issues. Here are a handful of Sam Walton's top quotes on business and life.
Sam Walton on business
One of the most common themes that pervade the thinking of many of the world's top entrepreneurs is customer obsession, and the same holds true of Sam Walton. Like Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Steve Jobs at Apple, Walton believed businesses exist to serve customers:
There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.
As another interesting unifying theme, many of today's greatest business visionaries didn't invent the concepts behind their companies. Personal computers and smartphones existed before Steve Jobs and Apple introduced both to the mainstream. The internet and e-commerce preceded Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Similarly, Sam Walton understood that success in business doesn't involve inventing something entirely new, a useful lesson to businesspeople and investors everywhere:
Most of us don't invent ideas. We take the best ideas from someone else.
Sam Walton on leadership
Legendarily gregarious, Walton never viewed leadership as an abstract or academic exercise; the man led by action. He believed that many of the best insights into improving Wal-Mart's operations came from those working on its front lines: the front- and back-office employees running its stores. He constantly visited Wal-Mart stores, and the attitude and tone he set while out in the field shone through in his public statements:
The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say.
However, this positive reinforcement also carried with it a business agenda. Walton understood that meeting and listening to his employees benefited the company beyond just identifying areas for improvement. Demonstrating that the company's CEO genuinely cared about even its most junior people could also serve as a motivating force for Wal-Mart's employees:
If you want the people in the stores to take care of the customers, you have to make sure you're taking care of the people in the stores. That's the most important single ingredient of Wal-Mart's success.
Motivated and happy employees serve their customers better. If done well, Walton believed this leadership style could create a positive feedback loop, giving a boost to the company's overall performance:
Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish.
Sam Walton on life
As is so often the case with renowned business leaders, their insight extends far beyond the boardroom. Though obvious in retrospect, Walton's choice of retail as a career didn't necessarily appear, in its early days, to be a pathway to great wealth and fame. In fact, the man embraced a contrarian worldview in many regards:
Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom.
As should be clear now, Walton's line of reasoning rests upon a more universal prescription for happiness, rather than monetary success. As Steve Jobs famously said in his Stanford commencement address, great results stem from heroic efforts -- something most people can achieve only if they like what they do. Here's Walton's way of phrasing this enduring bit of wisdom:
If you love your work, you'll be out there every day trying to do it the best you possibly can, and pretty soon everybody around will catch the passion from you -- like a fever.
Though his star has since been eclipsed by more recent business magnates like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and others, Sam Walton's place as a legendary businessman and leader also deserves study. Customer service, attention to your own employees, and taking the road less traveled -- these insights aren't unique to Walton. However, given their timeless nature, anyone interested in improving as a businessperson or investor can hardly hear them enough.