Walmart Disease

Walmart RollbackSummary:

  • Many large, and leading, companies have not created much shareholder value the last decade
  • A surprising number of very large companies have gone bankrupt (GM) or failed (Circuit City)
  • Wal-Mart is a company that has generated no shareholder value
  • The Wal-Mart disease is focusing on executing the business’s long-standing success formula better, faster and cheaper — even though it’s not creating any value
  • Size alone does not create value, you have to increase the rate of return
  • Companies that have increased value, like Apple, have moved beyond execution to creating new success formulas

Have you noticed how many of America’s leading companies have done nothing for shareholders lately? Or for that matter, a lot longer than just lately. Of course General Motors wiped out its shareholders. As did Chrysler and Circuit City. The DJIA and S&P both struggle to return to levels of the past decade, as many of the largest companies seem unable to generate investor value.

Take for example Wal-Mart. As this chart from clearly shows, after generating very nice returns practically from inception through the 1990s, investors have gotten nothing for holding Wal-Mart shares since 2000.

Wal-Mart Disease

Far too many CEOs today suffer from what I call “the Wal-Mart Disease.” It’s an obsession with sticking to the core business, and doing everything possible to defend & extend it — even when rates of return are unacceptable and there is a constant struggle to improve valuation.

Fortune magazine’s recent puff article about Mike Duke, “Meet the CEO of the Biggest Company on Earth” gives clear insight to the symptoms of this disease. Throughout the article, Mr. Duke demonstrates a penchant for obsessing about the smallest details related to the nearly 4 decade old Wal-Mart success formula. While going bananas over the price of bananas, he involves himself intimately in the underware inventory, and goes cuckoo over Cocoa Puffs displays. No detail is too small for the attention of the CEO trying to make sure he runs the tightest ship in retailing. With frequent references to what Wal-Mart does best, from the top down Wal-Mart is focused on execution. Doing more of what it’s always done – hopefully a little better, faster and cheaper.

But long forgotten is that all this attention to detail isn’t moving the needle for investors. For all its size, and cheap products, the only people benefitting from Wal-Mart are consumers who save a few cents on everything from jeans to jewelry.

The Wal-Mart Disease is becoming so obsessive about execution, so focused on doing more of the same, that you forget your prime objective is to grow the investment. Not just execute. Not just expand with more of the same by constantly trying to enter new markets – such as Europe or China or Brazil. You have to improve the rate of return. The Disease keeps management so focused on trying to work harder, to somehow squeeze more out of the old success formula, to find new places to implement the old success formula, that they ignore environmental changes which make it impossible, despite size, for the company to ever again grow both revenues and rates of return.

Today competitors are chipping away at Wal-Mart on multiple fronts. Some retailers offer the same merchandise but in a better environment, such as Target. Some offer a greater selection of targeted goods, at a wider price range, such as Kohl’s or Penney’s. Some offer better quality goods as well as selection, such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. And some offer an entirely different way to shop, such as These competitors are all growing, and earning more, and in several cases doing more for their investors because they are creating new markets, with new ways to compete, that have both growth and better returns.

It’s not enough for Wal-Mart to just be cheap. That was a keen idea 40 years ago, and it served the company well for 20+ years. But competitors constantly work to change the marketplace. And as they learn how to copy what Wal-Mart did, they can get to 90%+ of the Wal-Mart goal. Then, they start offering other, distinctive advantages. In doing so, they make it harder and harder for Wal-Mart to be successful by simply doing more of the same, only better, faster and cheaper.

Ten years ago if you’d predicted bankruptcy for GM or Chrysler or Circuit City you’d have been laughed at. Circuit City was a darling of the infamous best seller “Good To Great.” Likewise laughter would have been the most likely outcome had you predicted the demise of Sun Microsystems – which was an internet leader worth over $200B at century’s turn. So it’s easy to scoff at the notion that Wal-Mart may never hit $500B revenue. Or it may do so, but at considerable cost that continues to hurt rates of return, keeping the share price mired – or even declining. And it would be impossible to think that Wal-Mart could ever fail, like Woolworth’s did. Or that it even might see itself shredded by competitors into an also-ran position, like once powerful, DJIA member Sears.

The Disease is keeping Wal-Mart from doing what it must do if it really wants to succeed. It has to change. Wal-Mart leadership has to realize that what made Wal-Mart once great isn’t going to make it great in 2020. Instead of obsessing about execution, Wal-Mart has to become a lot better at competing in new markets. And that means competing in new ways. Mostly, fundamentally different ways. If it can’t do that, Wal-Mart’s value will keep moving sideways until something unexpected happens – maybe it’s related to employee costs, or changes in import laws, or successful lawsuits, or continued growth in internet retailing that sucks away more volume year after year – and the success formula collapses. Like at GM.

Comparatively, if Apple had remained the Mac company it would have failed. If Google were just a search engine company it would be called Alta Vista, or AskJeeves. If Google were just an ad placement company it would be Yahoo! If Nike had remained obsessed with being the world’s best athletic shoe company it would be Adidas, or Converse.

Businesses exist to create shareholder value – and today more than ever that means getting into markets with profitable growth. Not merely obsessing about defending & extending what once made you great. The Wal-Mart Disease can become painfully fatal.

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Adam HartungAdam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”

Adam Hartung




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  1. Tucker Garage Door Repair on January 11, 2011 at 1:08 am

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