Monday, October 24, 2011

The Last American Dreamer (?)--a review of MR. SAM: HOW SAM WALTON BUILT WAL-MART AND BECAME AMERICA'S RICHEST MAN by Karen Blumenthal

One summer on a visit to my grandparents’ house, my sister needed a belt.  My grandpa took her to a recently opened store in rural Monticello, Kentucky, to buy one.  The store was Wal-Mart, and my sister met Sam Walton that day.  He signed her new belt.  This was back in the mid-80s, and, according to Blumenthal’s book, Walton was on the threshold of becoming America’s Richest Man.    And, yet, in typical Sam Walton fashion, he was personally visiting his store wearing jeans and a cowboy hat.

Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America's Richest Man by Karen Blumenthal

One’s political views of Wal-Mart aside, this biography is fascinating for its insights into the changing retail landscape of Cold War America. The competitive nature of Walton is portrayed through his competition with other retailers to become number one, beginning with a five and dime in small-town Arkansas and continuing until his domination of retailers K-Mart, JC Penney (where he once worked), and Sears. Blumenthal does an excellent job of giving a straightforward account of Walton’s life—which was Wal-Mart—while guiding us through American history as Walton reinvents himself over and over again as a “big man on campus,” a Ben Franklin owner, and finally the richest CEO in America. She explains his successful and unsuccessful forays into other areas of retail sales—superstores, craft stores, and grocery stores—some which failed because they were ideas before their time. In true journalistic fashion, she gives a fairly balanced account, including criticisms of racism and sexism within the company, of his “buy American” campaign (did you know the Clintons were involved?), and of how company strategies caused the downfall of small-town America. Humanizing elements include Blumenthal’s accounts of his early business failures, details of his wife (who is portrayed as saint-like in her longsuffering), and the story of his favorite hunting dog and moniker for Wal-Mart store brand dog food, ‘Ole Roy.

The book is an attractive package, beginning with the jacket illustration by Paul Szep, a caricature of a kindly Walton pushing a cart of Wal-Mart products, wearing a company vest and nametag. (He looks like a Greeter). Although they don’t give a hint at what is contained within the chapters, the chapter titles are enthusiastic—“Win! Win! Win!,” “Sell! Sell! Sell!”—much like the man himself is portrayed. The black and white photos are well-chosen and have interesting details that demand a second look. Interesting side-bars explain concepts such as retail markup, fiscal years, and other pertinent information. Chapter Notes and a Bibliography reveal the extent of her research.

I don’t normally gravitate toward books about business figures or CEOs, but there is a bit of Everyman in Blumenthal’s Walton that appeals to the all-American in me. Without telling the reader what to think, she has delivered a story of the American dream, one that is still worth having in this cynical world of foreclosure and financial failure. Turning dreams into reality requires hard work, sacrifice, and dedication, something young people always need to learn. Warts and all, there is something about Walton to be admired in Blumenthal’s work. I wish my sister had kept that belt.


“Businessmen don’t seem like natural biographical subjects for young readers, but Blumenthal has done a splendid job of not only introducing Sam Walton but making his story relevant and timely.”—Jonathan Hunt, The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 2011)

“Blumenthal is a deft hand at explaining stock market splits, markups, and the niceties of planning for profit in the world of discount marketing…. Plenty of black-and-white photos document the morphing retail landscape, and sidebars and insets offer fascinating asides on topics from shopping carts to charges of racism in the early days of the company.”—Elizabeth Bush, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (July/August 2011)

“What is promoted as a biography offers much more in the form of a history of Wal-Mart and the evolution of sales and merchandising in American stores over the second half of the 20th century.”—Janet S. Thompson, School Library Journal (July 2011)

This book would be an awesome addition to any high school Business Department curriculum as a supplementary read, standing on its own, as it gives a fine account of retail and discount sales in America.

Students could learn to use databases such as Newsbank or EBSCOHost to locate primary sources, such as newspaper and magazine articles, about Walton. They could recreate the process of Blumenthal’s research by summarizing and comparing articles, working collaboratively to piece together a story of his life.

Macroeconomics classes could study globalization and the idea of “buy American” campaigns as they impact foreign and domestic economies, beginning with a study of Wal-Mart.

Introduction to Business students might benefit from Blumenthal’s excellent examples and explanations of basic economic principals such as stock splits, public ownership, and the theory of discount sales.

Vital Stats
Blumenthal, Karen (2011). Mr. Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-06700011773

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