Walmart goes from pandemic to party

FAYETTEVILLE — The message was loud and clear Friday morning at Bud Walton Arena where 14,000 Walmart employees gathered for the retailer giant’s associate celebration: Walmart is back.

The first meeting since the covid-19 pandemic brought an end to most of the world in early 2020 was a raucous one. Employees around the world sang and clapped throughout the three-hour meeting. The event featured celebrities, entertainers and musical artists as well as presentations from Bentonville’s top Walmart executives who highlighted the company’s accomplishments.

James Corden, host of “The Late, Late Show,” served as emcee, his second time leading the proceedings at Walmart. He joked that he was nursing a hangover and hadn’t gone to bed after spending the night partying at Fayetteville nightclubs JJ’s Grill and Maxine’s Taproom with the president and chef of Walmart executive Doug McMillon and Walmart chairman Greg Penner.

“We were like a three-man pack,” Corden said. “It was amazing.”

Musical guests included Yola and Jon Batiste, who told the crowd that he bought his first keyboard at a Walmart store. The Jonas Brothers closed the meeting.

Mentalist Loir Suchard worked the crowd, amazing employees by telling them the name of their first kiss – it was Carlos – or asking them to select one of the 120,000 items found in a typical Walmart store – a coat hanger – then revealing a card with the word hanger written on it.

“Always think happy thoughts,” he told the crowd. “Because you never know who might read them.

Key leaders including Kath McLay, Executive Director of Sam’s Club; Judith McKenna, president and CEO of Walmart International; and John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart US, noted that the company was celebrating 60 years in business and put the retailer’s success, historically and recently, at the feet of its employees. They told them that while a lot had changed over the years since they last met, the one constant was the employees’ dedication to their customers.

“I missed that meeting,” McKenna said, and the crowd roared in response.

The event, which included performances by Walmart employees, was peppered with video stories of workers who overcame problems, developed innovations or helped their communities. Penner also introduced several members of the Walton family, including Rob Walton, Jim Walton, and two of Jim Walton’s sons, Steuart and Tom Walton, and their families.

The 2022 winners of the Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur of the Year Award were the nine employees of the company’s ReliOn Analog Insulin team. Private label insulin, first offered by Walmart in the summer of 2021, saves customers between 58% and 75% off the spot price of branded insulin products, according to the company.

When McMillon took the stage, his first task was to set the record straight on the alleged party night with Corden.

“That didn’t happen,” he told the crowd with a chuckle.

He presented Walmart’s 60-year history as if it were a movie, with clips from films such as “Apollo 13″, /04/walmart-pivots-from-pandemic-to-party/”Clueless”,” Jaws” and “Back to the Future.”

“I love movies,” he told the crowd.

“I love you, Doug,” a voice in the crowd rang out.

“I love you too,” McMillon replied.

He said that over the years the company had faced tough criticism, but Walmart had met its challenges with resilience and a culture that was willing and able to change with the times. He said that was never more evident than when employees stepped up during the pandemic.

“When I see a great movie, I don’t want it to end,” McMillon said. “The good news is our movie is just getting started and you’re the heroes, you’re the stars, you’ve all earned your star on our walk of fame.”

But the retailer still faces economic challenges. Walmart announced last month that its profits fell 24% in the first quarter. Company executives said costs related to the pandemic and rising inflation contributed to the decline and left the retailer with excess inventory.

In a Q&A with investors on Friday afternoon, McMillon said the company is working hard to cut costs “from top to bottom” so that second-quarter results will be better.

While “we’re long-term thinkers,” McMillon said, “we care about the short term, we’re dealing with the short term, and over the past few weeks in particular you’ve seen the team react in great detail. and aggressive.”

McMillon said some people within the company called it “old-school Walmart,” which he took as a compliment.

“We always know how to run a retail business down to the granular level, and under pressure that’s exactly what happened,” he said.

Walmart has “a great strategy,” McMillon said.

“We can build a more profitable business,” he said. “Some of the things we’ve started are really encouraging, and that will translate into a better bottom line as we continue to have revenue that’s growing market share and gaining favor with customers and members, which is our goal.”

“So we don’t see anything strategic about us,” McMillon said. “We just want to move faster to do these things as we manage the short-term pressures, which seem to change quite frequently.”

The event was the last for chief financial officer Brett Biggs, who is leaving the company after 22 years. John David Rainey, who was present at the investor session, will take over on Monday.

McMillon thanked Biggs for his years of service to the company and helping with his successor’s transition. Then he asked Biggs if he had a final comment.

Biggs said the company was “in a fantastic position” and leadership was strong.

“People asked if it was so good, why are you leaving now, and it’s because it’s never over at Walmart,” Biggs said. “There is never an end. It always goes on.”

“But when I look at the next three, four, five years, the benefits I see for this business are limitless,” Biggs said.

Jon Batiste performs during Walmart’s Friday Celebration at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Batiste told the crowd that he got his first keyboard from a Walmart. More photos at (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

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