By  on April 23, 2007

Helen R. Walton helped shape the business strategy and the early culture of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., founded by her husband, Sam Walton.

And when she died Thursday at her Benton­ville, Ark., home at 87, Sam Walton's widow was among Wal-Mart's largest shareholders and ranked among the world's richest individuals, with a net worth of about $16.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

She directly controlled 750,000 shares of Wal-Mart stock and another 1.7 million shares with her children, about 39 percent of the company, according to Wal-Mart's 2007 proxy statement. Reports in recent years have said most of Walton's assets would go to the Walton Family Foundation, which is controlled by the Walton children and has been active in grants for K-12 charter schools, economic development and in marine and freshwater conservation.

In his autobiography, Sam Walton, who died in 1992, credited his wife's refusal to live in a town bigger than 10,000 people for his decision to open his first Wal-Mart stores in small towns throughout the southeastern U.S.

That strategy proved pivotal in Wal-Mart's early growth because there was more business in little towns than anyone had realized and because it allowed Wal-Mart to fly under the radar of Kmart and other large rivals. In addition, the plan gave Wal-Mart a warm, folksy image. That reputation ultimately turned in the early Nineties when critics and economists began accusing the retailer of squashing small-town economies by driving mom-and-pop stores out of business.

Walton also credited his wife with the idea for Wal-Mart's profit-sharing plan, which made millionaires out of many of the company's first managers, cashiers and other rank-and-file employees.

"We are so proud of our mother and the life she led," her son Rob Walton, Wal-Mart's chairman, said in a statement. "She devoted much of her life to helping others, and to improving the quality of life in northwest Arkansas."

Walton had not been out much in public after a car crash in 1999, when she suffered a head injury and was hospitalized for two months. Under the auspices of the Walton Family Foundation, Walton built the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark., and pushed for a $300 million gift for the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.In addition to Rob Walton, she is survived by another son, Jim, a member of the company's board; a daughter, Alice; eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Another son, John, died in 2005 in a plane crash.

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