The Life and Legacy of Sam Walton, Founder of Walmart

Walmart store in Clarkston Washington, USA
••• Francis Dean/Corbis News/Getty Images

Walmart founder Sam Walton left an estimated $100 billion fortune to his wife and four children when he died. Named the richest man in the United States by Forbes magazine in 1985, Walton opened the first Walmart in 1962 and built it into a chain that became the largest retailer in the country within 30 years.

Walton was born on March 29, 1918, to Thomas Gibson Walton and Nancy Lee Walton near Kingfisher, Oklahoma. He died on April 5, 1992, at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Known as Mr. Sam, Walton was an Eagle Scout and served as an Army captain during World War II. Walton is remembered as an innovator in business growth, discount retailing, supply chain management, and business financing.

Quick Facts

  • Even after becoming a billionaire, Walton drove a pickup truck and wore clothes from his own discount store, Walmart.
  • The Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas bears his name.
  • In 1984, Walton bet his store managers they could not earn a pretax margin larger than 8%. He said if he lost, he would dress in a grass hula skirt and floral shirt. They did. He lost. He did.

Pre-Walmart Years

Walton attended the University of Missouri where he was elected senior class president. To pay the tuition bill, he worked as a lifeguard, waiter, and newspaper delivery driver. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in economics. Following graduation, he aspired to attend the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, but quickly found he couldn't afford it. Instead, he took a job as a manager trainee at J.C. Penney in Des Moines, Iowa, where he worked for 18 months before serving in the Army during World War II.

After the war, Walton opened his first store, a Ben Franklin franchise, in Newport, Arkansas, on Sept. 1, 1945, after his wife insisted she would not live in a town of more than 10,000 people. In less than two decades, he owned 15 of the franchised stores.

While still operating his Ben Franklin franchises, Walton approached Herbert Gibson, founder of an already-successful discount chain in the south, to discuss the possibility of a partnership. Rebuffed for having too little capital, Walton decided to go it alone from scratch.

Starting Walmart

The first Walmart opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Stores originally were located within a day's driving distance from the company's distribution center to ensure almost instantaneous restocking. Walmart's supply chain was so efficient it would order a product and have it sold in three days while having to pay vendors every thirty days.

Sales increased from $313 million to $1.2 billion during the 1970s while the number of stores increased more than eightfold. Much of the increase came from bank debt, which was paid off mostly with proceeds from the company's 1970 initial public offering.

In 1991, Walmart surpassed Sears, Roebuck & Company to become the country’s largest retailer. Sears fell to third place after Walmart and Kmart. In that same year, as the country was mired in an economic downturn, Walmart increased sales by more than 40%. 

Technology

Walmart embraced technology before many other companies. In the early 1980s, the business was one of the first to utilize UPC barcodes to automate the inventory process. In 1983, the business spent tremendous amounts of capital on a private satellite system that could track delivery trucks, speed credit card transactions, and transmit audio and video signals and sales data.

Walmart later introduced online ordering with free pickup and mobile apps. Through the end of 2018, Walmart still was one of the largest companies in the world, with a market capitalization of more than $275.8 billion.