Rejecting pressure from institutional shareholders to name an independent chairman, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. used its annual shareholders meeting today to reveal the passing of the baton from Robson Walton, 70, to his son-in-law, Greg Penner, 45. But while Penner is still “in the family,” his appointment marks a generational shift.
Penner, who received an MBA from Stanford, started Madrone Capital Partners, a venture capital firm with a focus on alternative energy and China,, in 2005, a company backed with funds from the Walton family. Prior to Madrone, Penner held a variety of management positions at Wal-Mart. Since 2011, he has served as chairman of the Wal-Mart board’s technology and e-commerce committee. He joined the Wal-Mart board in 2008.
Despite the shakeup in the chairman’s suite, Wal-Mart came into the annual shareholders meeting today on a confident note after posting improved financial results in the first quarter, including U.S. comps of 1.1 percent, the second consecutive quarter of positive comps in a row.
The extravaganza at the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, was filled with patriotic iconography and had the fervor of a revival meeting at times as well as millions of dollars worth of star power.
“I’m Reese Witherspoon and I’m here to get this party started early,” the actress screamed as she bounded onto the stage. “I’m so happy to be in Fayetteville celebrating with you today, Now, I was born and raised in the South so I can finally get all my y’alls out.
“Wal-Mart was the place that sold the thing I wanted more than anything in the world, a bright pink Barbie car. I never got one. But today it’s not about me and my fond memories of Wal-Mart, it’s about Wal-Mart’s future. A mom can order her groceries in the morning and pick them up at Wal-Mart on her way home from dropping the kids off from school. As a mother of three children, I can tell you that is invaluable, that is a miracle. That could change your life,” she said.
Besides Witherspoon, Brian McNight and Ricky Martin provided entertainment and there was an appearance from Carol Burnett. Asked by Witherspoon to “do the famous Tarzan call,” the comedienne said, “I have a little frog in my throat so I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.” She let out a rusty yelp. Mariah Carey took the stage and sang “Infinity” and “Always Be My Baby.”
There was nostalgia in a film clip of founder Sam Walton, who died in 1992, predicting that the company would reach $100 billion in sales by the year 2000. Rob Walton said the retailer had sales of $200 billion that year. “Retail is getting tougher and tougher,” he said. “The competition is coming from so many different areas. How our customers shop is also changing rapidly. The only limits to our success are our own imaginations.”
The retailer this week said that it will raise the wages of 100,000 employees in supervisory roles after increasing the pay of 500,000 associates in April. Shareholders have frowned on the move, which will cost the company $1 billion, but Wal-Mart hopes the investment will increase employee morale and improve service and in-stock positions.
Five shareholder proposals were defeated at the meeting, including one that called for establishing an independent chairperson of the board. Four other proposals were voted down. One, supported by the Sierra Club, called for Wal-Mart to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by international marine shipping containers. A proposal introduced by a member of Our Wal-Mart said the company can afford to pay its associates $15 an hour and provide full time work.
“Associates need to have good jobs and build careers. I’m proud of the work we’ve done this year to demonstrate how we feel about you,” said Wal-Mart Stores ceo Doug McMillon, referring to the wage increases. “We added more than $9 billion in sales with $27 billion in profits last year. We’ll continue to make significant investments in two areas that will drive our future: our people and technology. Everywhere we operate, we’re seeing people wanting convenience, especially Millennials – eight out of 10 of them are using their phones to shop.We need to stop talking about digital and physical as if they’re two different things.
“Our real villains are inside our business,” McMillon said, “bureaucracy, complacency, lack of speed and lack of passion. We’ve got to make this business simpler and faster. No one has the incredible network of stores we have around the world. Now think of our supply chain and logistics team. And let me be clear, there is no business result worth your integrity or our company’s we would rather have a bad financial result than take a shortcut. We need to dial up our expectations, of each other and ourselves. We can be like those scrappy insurgents in ‘Star Wars.'”
Wal-Mart’s chief financial officer Charles Holley ticked off highlights from its balance sheet and other metrics. While profits in 2015 grew only 1 percent, Holley said, “Last year wasn’t an easy year for us. We were hit with health care headwinds and currency fluctuations. Not many companies could have weathered these major headwinds.”
Wal-Mart’s worldwide sales grew by $9 billion in 2015 to $482 billion. Wal-Mart International contributed $136 billion in sales last year and increased profits at a faster rate than sales, or 3.6 percent.
“We spent $14 billion on growth last year,” Holley said. “We need to change the way we use our cash, which is why we’re focused on small store formats and our e-commerce business.”
He said the retailer in 2015 paid $6.2 billion in dividends to shareholders and repurchased $1 billion in shares.
Wal-Mart U.S. chief executive officer Greg Foran said that increasing wages is “only the start” in terms of employee benefits. “You’ll have more control over your schedules and we’re refining our sick leave policy.” By 2020, Wal-Mart will have hired over 250,000 veterans, he added.
Removing his suit jacket, he revealed the Wal-Mart associate’s vest and new badge design that reads “Our people make the difference. Our goal is to make sure every associate is better off. You’ll be equipped to better serve our customers. We want to have a fantastic fresh food experience and operate better stores.”
David Cheesewright, ceo of international, said that in addition to operating 6,200 stores, the division has e-commerce businesses in 10 countries.
“Last year we opened 183 new stores including openings in Nairobi, Kenya last month,” he said. “Our annual comps have increased four quarters in a row. We’re accelerating e-commerce and improving world class compliance programs. We’re acting with integrity.”
However, one of the shareholder proposals presented during the meeting, called for the company to disclose its clawback policiy for executive compensation, saying, “It’s a matter of concern given the number of international investigations going on. Legal fees have grown to $700 million now. That’s a lot of money going to lawyers.”
Wal-Mart has revealed to the Justice Department possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Global e-commerce ceo Neil Ashe’s presentation said walmart.com will expand its product offerings from 7 million to over 10 million next year.
Another innovation is a mobile phone app for Sam’s that tells stores when a pick-up at store customer nears the parking lot. “In the U.K., Asda grocery home shopping customers can place an order online, drive up to a futuristic pod and have their groceries pop out,” he said.
The retailer is expanding online grocery shopping to Mexico and Chile, while in the U.S. it’s available in San Jose, Denver, Phoenix and northwest Arkansas.
Sam’s Club ceo Roz Brewer said Sam’s, in response to members, is selling 3-D printers, drones and single diamonds valued at over $100,000. Answering the call for healthier food options, Sam’s increased organics by over 20 percent. A new program provides discounts or free prescriptions for costly diseases such as cancer for Plus members.