Walmart: Accelerating the World’s Greatest Retail Transformation

An Insight from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit

Part of a Series

This Insight is taken from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit.

Key Takeaways

  1. Grow an ecosystem: Make your customers’ lives better by wrapping services, solutions, and products around their lifestyle and needs. Then, build operations and finance teams that can support that ecosystem.
  2. Eradicate silos: Focus on customer value by ensuring that your organizational structure allows for maximum communication and efficiency. To do this, make sure your operations and teams can work across organizational boundaries.
  3. Articulate key tenets and values: Listen, be additive and flexible, and strive to make a difference. Key cultural values such as these give colleagues a common language and can help to motivate and grow leaders.

Like most retailers, Walmart began its journey by opening just one store in 1962. Store One still stands today but has since relocated just down the street and now operates as a Supercenter. Yet over the last 57 years, Walmart stands out from other retailers by the sheer magnitude of its growth. The company has become a household name and in fiscal year 2019 boasted a total revenue of $515 billion and close to $28 billion in operating cash flow. It has retail presence in 27 countries and employs over 2.2 million total associates who help to complete an average of 275 million transactions per week. At Leadership for a Networked World’s 2019 CFO of the Future Summit, Brett Biggs, Walmart’s current executive vice president and CFO, shared how Sam Walton and his successors operationalized and sustain this growth, exemplifying this year’s summit theme: Value at High Velocity. Grounding his words in a foundational quote from Sam Walton: “to succeed in this world, you have to change all the time,” Biggs shared how the company upholds a culture that embraces change. At the same time, Biggs shared, as Walmart grows, it continues to value experience by focusing on one store and one customer at a time.

“I like people who will dive after the ball even if it’s not theirs. People who go do it and take hold of problems. Go solve things. We’ve talked a lot about leading and solutions. Don’t tell me it’s not in your segment. We’ve got to solve problems for customers”
Brett Biggs
Chief Financial Officer, Walmart

As he told the story of Walmart’s evolution, Biggs noted that the retailer has become almost a completely different company since the Rogers, Arkansas store opened. Some might assume that the company has become a conglomerate, but Biggs and his colleagues tend to think of the organization as an ecosystem instead. This means that they consistently think toward trying to make customers’ lives better. “We have a lot of touchpoints with the customer now,” Biggs said, including social, logistics, home personal services and digital entertainment. “[A conglomerate and an ecosystem] can look really similar, but in this case, we’re trying to give things to the customer that they need … we continue to be in customers’ lives and make a difference rather than just having them shop with us.” Walmart has grown by carefully tuning into customers’ desires as an additive presence, iteratively ready to demonstrate flexibility as customers’ needs – and the market – changes.

In addition to the company’s exponential growth, Biggs shared that the structure of the organization has changed. Global Business Services became a part of finance, which then became Walmart Enterprise Solutions. Walmart Enterprise Solutions now comprises multiple finance groups as well as Corporate Strategy, Development and Procurement (Global Business Services now falls under Technology and Development) and demonstrates an umbrella-like approach. “We can’t keep doing [finance] in silos and segments,” Biggs said. “We’ve got to bring things together.” In this way, organizational structure enhances communication and efficiency to better participate in the overall ecosystem.

Biggs named four key tenets which help Walmart Enterprise Solutions to lead and innovate to produce solutions. First, the organization prides itself on growing leaders. Biggs said: “I like people who will dive after the ball even if it’s not theirs. People who go do it and take hold of problems. Go solve things. We’ve talked a lot about leading and solutions. Don’t tell me it’s not in your segment. We’ve got to solve problems for customers.” Second, his associates strive to “change how [they] work” all the time, eradicating deficits by shifting their approach to problems. This requires carefully tuning in to unanticipated issues as they arise and being flexible enough to change course if need be. Third, the organization drives value by always striving to provide its partners with solutions. And fourth, Biggs said, Walmart Enterprise Solutions protects the company by getting the numbers right and delivering value to clients.

The tenets Biggs expressed can be realized only insofar as leaders uphold them through their actions. Biggs and his team isolated nine key leadership behaviors which will make people effective across the organization in solving these horizontal issues. These include:

“If you’re good at these things, you’re competent at your job and you’re going to get pretty far in your career. If you do these things and you’re really good at what you do, there’s no limit for you.”
Brett Biggs
Chief Financial Officer, Walmart

Although these are often classified as “soft skills”, they are what make people across the organization effective in solving real issues. Additionally, Biggs said, articulating these behaviors helps to give associates a common language, especially when it comes to motivation and rationale around promotion structures. He elaborated: “if you’re good at these things and you’re competent at your job, you’re going to get pretty far in your career. If you do these things and you’re really good at what you do, there’s no limit for you.” Walmart’s story is far from over. Its trajectory helps to remind us of the importance of organizations growing their own ecosystems by simultaneously embracing values of macro-level, large-scale change as well as a micro-level customer-oriented mindset.

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