WAL-MART’S SODERQUIST WILL RETIRE
Byline: David Moin
NEW YORK — Wal-Mart’s second-in-command and charismatic senior vice chairman, Donald G. Soderquist, who became the motivational force for the hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart workers after the death of Sam Walton in 1992, will retire from the company Aug. 25.
Soderquist, 66, will remain on the board of directors, where he has served since 1980.
His departure from daily involvement in the company represents a big loss in leadership for Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, with more than $160 billion in annual sales. However, the company has a strong bench of managers, and in its tradition of cross-training high-ranking executives, it is assigning Soderquist’s broad responsibilities to four other senior officials: Thomas Coughlin, Thomas M. Schoewe, Mike Duke and Rollin Ford.
Soderquist has been overseeing key support operations, including real estate, human resources, information systems, logistics, legal, corporate affairs and loss prevention, as well as the company’s McLane food and general merchandise distribution division. Coughlin, 51, president and chief executive officer of the Wal-Mart Stores division, which includes the Wal-Mart discount stores and supercenters in the U.S., will assume additional responsibility for loss prevention and marketing. Marketing previously reported to the corporate ceo’s office.
Duke, 50, executive vice president of logistics, has been appointed executive vice president of administration. While retaining oversight of logistics, Duke also will be responsible for real estate, legal and corporate affairs.
Schoewe, 47, executive vice president and chief financial officer, will be responsible for information systems, McLane and new business development, while retaining cfo responsibility for treasury, tax, accounting and control, business planning and analysis, internal auditing and insurance and benefits.
Rollin Ford, 38, has been promoted to senior vice president of logistics, from vice president of distribution operations.
“Clearly, Don will be missed at Wal-Mart,” said Vanessa Castagna, J.C. Penney’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, and former senior vice president of women’s for Wal-Mart. “When I think about Don, I think about an incredibly high-energy person. He was so passionate about associates and customers, and is very easy to talk to. He’s an accessible, motivating leader who inspires you to do a better job.
“He’s been the keeper of the culture.”
Robert Kenzer, chairman of Kenzer Corp. executive search, called Soderquist Wal-Mart’s most visible executive since Sam Walton, both in the vendor community and with Wal-Mart workers.
“He has been the beacon, the people light, but he was also a major girder in building the company,” Kenzer said.
Soderquist, along with the more reserved David Glass, a strategic and numbers-oriented executive who catapulted the company’s growth and retired as ceo last year, formed a well-balanced team. The two complemented each other with their different personalities.
Last year, Glass was succeeded by the affable Lee Scott, who, without Soderquist at his side, will have a more demanding leadership role. Soderquist has been leading the legendary Saturday morning pep meetings with associates, a tradition Sam Walton established. He has also been a frequent speaker at Wal-Mart management meetings and retail industry meetings.
Duke, Coughlin and Schoewe will report to Scott, as do the following senior managers: John Menzer, president and ceo of Wal-Mart International; Tom Grimm, president and ceo of Sam’s Club; and Allan Leighton, president and ceo of Asda, the company’s European division, which includes stores in the U.K. and Germany.
Scott said in a statement: “I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work for Don and am one of many who benefited directly from his leadership, both personally and professionally.”
Rob Walton, chairman of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., added, “Without question, Don Soderquist has played a vital role in the growth and development of Wal-Mart over the last 20 years. He is an inspiring leader and talented executive who sets the bar in terms of business ethics and personal integrity. My father respected him greatly.”
Said Soderquist, “While the decision to retire is not an easy one, it is simply the right time for both me and my family. The next generation of leaders is ready.”
Soderquist plans to keep an office at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and to serve in an informal advisory capacity. He also expects to stay on the speaking circuit. Long before Soderquist joined Wal-Mart in 1980, Sam Walton repeatedly tried to recruit him when he was president and ceo of Ben Franklin Stores in Chicago.
“I tried for almost 20 years to hire Don Soderquist away from Ben Franklin,” Walton once said. “I even offered him the presidency one time, and he didn’t come. But when we really needed him later on, he finally joined up and made a great chief operating officer.” He became Wal-Mart’s vice chairman and chief operating officer in 1988 and was named senior vice chairman in 1999.
In an unrelated matter, published reports out of Europe last week claimed that Wal-Mart may be in negotiations to buy Germany’s largest retailer, Metro AG, which operates about 2,100 units in a variety of formats, including specialty stores, hypermarkets, supermarkets and department stores. Reports also suggested that Metro’s controlling shareholders, the Haniel and Schmidt-Ruthenbeck families, and founder Otto Beisheim, have contacted European retailers in search of a deal. Wal-Mart declined to comment on those reports.
Wal-Mart has already shaken up the German retail scene by acquiring the 21-unit Wertkauf hypermarket chain and 74 Interspar hypermarkets, owned by Spar, in the past couple of years. While Wal-Mart’s market share is still well under the top five German retailers, it’s been a catalyst for much change by introducing lower prices and greeters at the store entrances, and by setting the standard for efficient operations.
Internationally, the company operates more than 1,000 units. In the U.S., the retailer operates 1,773 Wal-Mart stores, 780 supercenters and 466 Sam’s Clubs. Wal-Mart employs more than 885,000 associates in the U.S. and 255,000 internationally.