Book Review: In Sam We Trust

Published in Roadside Magazine, 1999

As a retailing behemoth, the size and power of Wal-Mart cannot be overstated. From its beginnings in 1962 as a low-rent, fumbling, but successful discount retailer, the expanding chain under the leadership of founder Sam Walton makes for a story that puts Horatio Alger to shame. Walton made mistakes but never twice. Not the smartest guy in the business nor the most original, Walton adroitly utilized available resources and creatively borrowed ideas from his competition. Add to that his low-key, folksy manner, his persistence, and his ability to attract top talent, and you have the leanest and meanest retailing machine the country has ever known. Today, Wal-Mart's revenues exceed those of Sears, Penney's, and K-Mart's combined.

Sam Walton Wal-Mart by Wall Street Journal reporter Bob Ortega exposes for the first time Walton's early years and meteoric rise to join the greats of retailing such as R.H. Macy, Kresge, Woolworth, and others. But more importantly, he illustrates the lasting legacy of Walton's policies as carried out by his successors. In Sam We Trust tells a compelling and classically American story, and despite the company's controversial tactics, maintains an objective voice.

Ortega's lucid and approachable case history does draw come ominous conclusions. Without the guiding hand and personality of its founder, Wal-Mart's relentless pursuit of efficiency has come at the expense of the morale of its front-line employees or "associates." With most hourly wages barely above minimum, the company compensates with is now-famous stock ownership program. But what happens when the stock price stumbles, as it has in recent years?

Ortega also takes the company to task for its repeated hypocrisies -- as evidenced by the Kathy Lee/child labor fiasco, the hollow "Buy American" pledge, and the chain's claims that its stores help communities prosper. And when actually handed an opportunity to do good and score some publicity points, Wal-Mart handles it like a warm turd.

Ortega's recounting of a meeting between Wal-Mart's top brass and National Trust president Richard Moe embodies the meaning of the word frustration. In proposing multi-floor stores in existing, walkable commercial districts, Moe might have proposed a store on the moon for all the enthusiasm the idea garnered.

Know thine enemy, goes the saying, and we become very familiar indeed with this company, thanks to Ortega's insightful reporting. He all buts gives us the opposing team's play book, and whether you think Wal-Mart is the best thing since sliced bread or the worst thing since Robert Moses, you'll find this book an irresistible read.

In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton,
and How Wal-Mart is Devouring America
by Bob Ortega
Times Books, New York, NY
$25.95 (hardcover)