My mother scolded me, “That’s no trash man. That’s Sam Walton.”
Her gnarled fingers traced a thin layer of dust.
“This letter is his thanking me!”
I apologized for calling him “the world’s richest trash man.”
My arm around her shoulder, I kissed her balding head.
Cool crispness in air, white wispy clouds, a deep blue sky, maple trees changing color, it was a beautiful northern Arkansas day.
“Thank you son,” said a man in a suit as I held a door open.
Minutes later the same man stopped me leaving the store. “You didn’t buy anything?”
“Going to Kmart,” I said, “Film is 10 cents cheaper; I want 60 rolls.”
“If it was 5 cents cheaper here, would you buy it here?”
I asked, “Why not 10 cents?”
He smiled, “Ok! 10 cents it is! This is our grand opening.”
I thanked him, bought and left.
Going to my car, I watched him walk to an old red and white Ford pickup. I had cleaned up my new home, and had 15 bags of trash waiting.
“Howdy,” I said.
A little confused, he smiled. During a handshake, I noticed a plastic trash bag under an old tire and leaves in his pickup bed. I offered $10 and fees for a trip to the dump, “I do all the lifting,” I said.
He laughed. “Do you know who I am?”
“No sir. Do you know who I am? I can sweep that trash out, too!”
He smiled saying he owned the store where I just bought film.
“Never saw one in Texas,” I shot back, “Seen a lot of Kmarts and Gibsons.”
“Oh you will!” he said.
“No disrespect intended, sir, but looking at your pickup, and the way you price your goods, doesn’t look like this store thing is working out for you!”
He laughed again.
“Ok. I see where this is going,” I paused. “I know you could use a little money, so it’s $20 hard cash but that’s my final offer!” I pulled out a $20 bill showing it to him. He laughed even harder.
“You remind me of me,” he said, “Ever in the military? You called me ‘sir’ a few times today.”
I had served in the Army; he said he had served in the Army, too! He loosened his tie and his demeanor turned serious.
“Son, what do you want out of life?”
I answered, “I am going to be the best technical analyst I can be, to predict stock and commodity prices.”
“Son, I like you. You want to be the best in what you do.”
He offered a job saying I could be a district manager in five years with a nice annual salary.
“I wish I could accept, but I could not give you total commitment. God has a different plan for me, just as He has His plan for you. Presbyterians believe these things.”
He said, “I know that’s true.”
He asked me “what is the most important thing a store can do to guarantee a person will be a lifetime customer.”
“Never be unsold. Always give a customer more than what he pays for.”
He asked what I meant.
“Have employees welcome each customer asking him if he needs help in finding what he came to buy, big store, easy to get lost!”
“You are a businessman son, you don’t know it.”
I asked why both his Fayetteville stores were across from Kmarts.
“Kmart was created to put Sears out of business. I am doing that to them. You see a Kmart in a town without a Walmart, call his number.”
He handed me his business card.
“I guess our trash deal is out?”
He smiled; we shook hands.
“Buy Walmart stock” he shouted as he slowly drove by and waved “$6 a share!”
The price increased over 4,400 percent from 1980 to 1990 as Walmart became the world’s largest retailer and trucking company. Sam’s net worth soared near $10 billion by 1990, making him the world’s richest man.
In 1987, I called Sam’s number telling a secretary there was a Kmart but no Walmart in Cedar City, UT. “Tell Sam, it’s Kent, his trash hauling boss!”
“Mr. Calhoun,” Sam said how much he and Helen loved Utah when serving in the Army.
I told him my wife was expecting. He offered a job after Cedar City Walmart was built. I answered by telling him I was “still a Presbyterian,” and he said “I am one, too.”
True to his word, he built across from a Kmart that closed in 2015. If I was smarter, I would have bought Walmart stock at $6 a share, or Cedar City land across from Kmart; but I did not.
My 91-year old mother pushes a walker demanding I stand before her Sam Walton letter, a living room pilgrimage we make each time I visit.
Sam’s letter is dated a year after I met him. She wrote Sam offering 20 rooms in a College Station, Texas, motel she managed before he built a store. He met her, never knowing she was my mother. I pretend to view her shrine for a first time, each time. Memories sustain people living their last days alone.
There are no accidents in life; the days we met Sam are not one. She never forgot Sam’s day nor did I. What would Sam have said if she mentioned her son offered him a job; yet she never knew. How did he remember my last name? Was I the last to offer him a job?
Sam died in 1992, nearly 2,000 stores, 380,000 employees, and $50 billion annual sales.
Forbes ranked Sam “the richest man in America” 1982 to 1988. Yet what made Sam truly wealthy was how much he loved people, making them feel so special, and how his friendly, good nature made it easy for them to love him, too.
I wished I had known a little more then, about the stranger to whom I introduced myself 37 years ago in a Walmart parking lot.
Who knows? Maybe $25 could have cinched our trash hauling deal.
Kent Calhoun is a local resident who occasionally shares his opinions with our readers.