By  on April 6, 2005

ROGERS, Ark. — Wal-Mart chief executive officer H. Lee Scott and other top executives, seeking to rebut critics of the world’s largest retailer, told an unprecedented media conference convened by the company that they were confident in the discounter’s strong fundamentals and growth strategies.

Scott said Wal-Mart is a magnet for opposition because it challenges the status quo. Chief financial officer Thomas Schoewe said the company’s stock, trading near a two-year low and down about 15 percent in the last year, had been affected by a variety of factors, including bad publicity, or “headline risk,” and dismissed concerns that Wal-Mart is cannibalizing older stores by opening units nearby.

The two-day conference, in which access is being tightly controlled and photographs and one-on-one interviews with executives are prohibited, is the first of its kind for Wal-Mart and marks a major shift in the company’s protocol, which had roots in founder Sam Walton’s philosophy of shunning the media.

The event is part of an aggressive campaign that started in January and has included full-page advertisements in more than 100 newspapers touting Wal-Mart’s job creation and employee benefits. It is intended to polish the retailer’s public image and get out its message.

“Many of our competitors, let’s face it, would like to continue to be rewarded for operating in ways that are less efficient and less meaningful to their customers, and continue to pass those inefficiencies off in the form of higher prices,” said Scott, who read from a Teleprompter for about 20 minutes and took questions for 25 more.

“In some cases, I think some folks would like to hang on to a status quo that doesn’t exist in most of America today — the notion of the general store, which started to disappear in the 1950s,” Scott said.

Wal-Mart has come under fire from labor groups for its wage and benefits policies and allegedly anticompetitive practices, and faces battles in cities such as New York and Los Angeles over expansion plans. The company also has been challenged by scandals. Last month it agreed to pay a record $11 million to settle a civil investigation by federal law enforcement authorities involving contractors who hired illegal immigrants to clean stores. Wal-Mart also settled with the U.S. Department of Labor for violations of child labor laws.

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