By  on April 20, 2007

Helen R. Walton, the widow of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, died of natural causes Thursday night in her Bentonville, Ark. home, the company said. She was 87.

Walton was one of Wal-Mart’s largest shareholders and one of the world’s richest women, with a net worth of about $16.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

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 to 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 associate 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.”

In addition to Rob Walton, she is survived by another son, Jim, a member of the company board, a daughter, Alice, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Another son, John, died in 2005 in a plane crash.

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