- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

After 18 years in human resources at Dallas-based American Airlines, Sue Oliver has finally landed. Landed the ultimate job in HR, which is leading Wal-Mart Stores U.S. million-man-merchandise machine. Of course, Wal-Mart employees are only one-half men and they aren’t machines but there are one million of them making Sue’s job the largest HR job in the private sector.

Handling the employee issues for a staff of one million is mind-bending. Consider this fact. One million people is the average attendance for a National Football League team for an entire season, including home and away games. (The Washington Redskins only drew 644,000 at home all last season.) And how about this? If you stacked one million paychecks, they would form a paper tower as high as a 60-story building—56 feet taller than the 544-foot Washington Monument.

The Wal-Mart workstyle is uniquely a product of founder Sam Walton’s genius. Reinforced by the company’s legendary two-hour Saturday morning staff meetings starting at 7:30am from the Bentonville auditorium, this enthusiastic culture lives on many years after Sam’s death. From her office in the heart of Ozark country, Bentonville, Arkansas, Oliver spoke to me about how Wal-Mart hopes to continue making a positive difference in the lives of one million employees.

Sue, why did you make the change from American Airlines to the world of Wal-Mart?

As I thought about the position, I was increasingly intrigued with two things. The first was this culture, unique to Wal-Mart. I read Sam Walton’s book Made In America. I was motivated by the fact that Wal-Mart is the industry leader, and I could positively influence one million associates and have this strong set of core values on which to build. The second was that we all look for opportunities that are a capstone on a career, and this is an opportunity above the ordinary.

How do you handle the criticism of Wal-Mart that from time to time hits the headlines?

Whenever there is criticism, everyone here simply says, “that’s not the Wal-Mart I know.” Wal-Mart also learns from critics. We take (the criticisms) to heart, and we react well to it. When we face adversity, we return to core values. Lee Scott, our CEO, is very committed to helping us all understand how to make Wal-Mart a great corporate citizen.

At Wal-Mart’s everything is automated, bar coded and scannable. Technology must also play a role in helping you manage all these employees. How?

We use computer-based learning a lot. Every associate is responsible for staying abreast of current topics. We believe in learning throughout an entire career. Two-thirds of current store management started off as hourly staff. The head of Sam’s Club, Kevin Turner, started as an hourly worker.

The impending human capital crisis of more peopleretiring than there are people to replace them is looming. How is Wal-Mart planning on dealing with this issue?

We are continuing to work to be known as an employer of choice. We have more applications for more jobs than are officially open. We have 9,000 hourly employees who got promoted last quarter. Unlike most retailers, the majority of our positions are full-time. We are also a diversity leader. We have 128,000 Hispanic employees, 200,000 African-Americans. And we have the largest employee retention efforts of any retail employer. Our labor turnover is low. Wal-Mart’s turnover each year is 46% versus 65% for retail overall. The key is that in an employee’s first 90 to 180 days, employees see they will be well-trained and appreciated. The culture is second to none. In addition to being the largest, we are also the fastest-growing employer in the world. That’s what I mean by being the employer of choice.

During the legendary Saturday morning meetings, what happens that keeps the energy going after all these years?

The auditorium in Bentonville is filled with employees, suppliers, trainees and guests. The CEO or another senior business leader will talk about business vision. “Correction of errors” will be openly discussed. We hit sales for the week and expenses. We also introduce family members. Wal-Mart likes to bring family and friends into the process. It is not unusual to have CEO Lee Scott act with urgency on a number of items brought up in the meeting. We also have the famous Wal-Mart cheer, which ends with “Who’s number one? The customer, always.”

Jay Whitehead is America’s most-read, most-watched and most-listened-to expert on workstyles. Email your questions to [email protected].

Listen to Jay Whitehead on web-radio every Tuesday 5pm to 6pm EST when he hosts Won on Won with Whitehead on www.businessamericaradio.com. Email questions in advance to Jay Whitehead at [email protected]

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