The Epic Saga of Walmart As Told by Doug McMillon

Walmart 60th

Coming to a theater near you: the history of Walmart!

If you attended this year’s Associate Celebration, you know Doug McMillon, President and CEO, is a great lover of movies. So, in that spirit, and in celebration of 60 years of Walmart, hop into the time machine, and join Doug on a journey through Walmart’s epic history. Fasten your seatbelts. You’re in for a wild ride!


Setting the Scene

Meet our lead characters: Sam, Helen and Bud Walton. The year: 1945. The place: A classic brick building in the small downtown of Newport, Arkansas. Above the awning is sign declaring “Ben Franklin Stores.” It’s a classic 5 & 10—a store where you could find just about anything you need for your home at very low prices.


This particular glass storefront holds items like lampshades and paint. And there’s an ice cream machine up front that Bud did not enjoy cleaning.

But even in Act I, the drama had begun to unfold: Sam’s success motivates the landlord not to renew the lease. The landlord wants his own son to have the store. But that doesn’t stop this family.


If Indiana Jones taught us anything, it’s that “we do not follow maps to buried treasure, and X never, ever marks the spot.” So, the Waltons pack their bags and move to Bentonville, population 2,942.


There, Sam opens another Ben Franklin, this time carrying the Walton name. It’s so successful that he grows it into 17 more locations. But Sam has new and different ideas about how to serve customers, and the franchise owners didn’t want to change. As Yoda once said, “always in motion is the future,” and Sam was ready to be a trailblazer.


So, in 1962, Sam opens the first Walmart discount store. Many were skeptical about that idea. Most people didn’t think a broad assortment with low prices in small towns would work—there just wouldn’t be enough business, they fretted.

Sam may have been swimming upstream from the beginning, but it turns out he was right. Though others didn’t hop aboard at first, Walmart discount stores thrive.


In just five years, the Waltons own 24 stores. By 1969, the company incorporated, and in 1970, Walmart becomes a publicly traded company. Demand from customers only continues to grow. Sam knew they were going to need a bigger boat.


An Unexpected Journey

Cut to the 80s. With $1 billion in annual sales, Walmart is the fastest growing company in 1980. In 1983, in Midwest City, Oklahoma, the company opens the very first Sam’s Club.


Always forward thinking, Walmart replaces cash registers with computerized point-of-sale systems. And in 1984, there is literally dancing in the street when Sam does the hula on Wall Street (the same year Footloose came out. Coincidence?), delivering on his promise to associates when the company achieves a pre-tax profit of 8%.

They build a few huge European-style hypermarkets that eventually lead to the Walmart Supercenter. This behemoth in Washington, Missouri, combines general merchandise with a full-scale supermarket for the ultimate in one-stop shopping. The future has arrived.


Through a joint venture with Cifra, a Mexican retailer, Walmart goes international in 1991, opening a Sam’s Club in Mexico City. Three years later, and many miles north, Walmart opens stores in Canada. But this rapid expansion didn’t come without challenges.


Sam understood that with great power comes great responsibility. On Walmart’s 25th anniversary, he and Helen establish the Walton Family Foundation to improve K-12 education and invest in the environment and communities they support.


When Sam receives the Medal of Freedom five years later in 1992, he voices the company’s mission of saving people money so they can live better. He passes away shortly after at age 74, leaving a legacy that continues today.

Four years after Sam passes away, Fortune magazine writes an article that asks, “Can Walmart get back the magic?” The article suggested that Walmart was too ambitious in its international expansion.


With Rob Walton as chairman of the board, and 371,000 associates in 1,928 stores and clubs, Walmart just kept swimming. By 1997, the company celebrates its first $100 billion sales year.


The Sequels Continue

In the new millennium, Walmart becomes a dotcom, allowing customers to shop online. A few years later, it tops the Fortune 500 ranking of America’s largest companies. And in 2005, Walmart leads the charge in disaster relief, contributing $18 million and 2,450 truckloads of supplies to victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.


A major commitment to environmental sustainability was also made in the early 2000s. Walmart announces it will create zero waste, use only renewable energy, and sell products that sustain people and the environment.


The commitment to serve customers and the environment continues into the 2010s, with a commitment of $2 billion in five years to help end hunger in the U.S. In 2013, Walmart U.S. announces it will hire any honorably discharged veteran within their first year off active duty, and projects hiring over 100,000 veterans in the next five years.

After expanding into 27 countries, the company employs 2.3 million associates worldwide in 2015. And as we keep working together, we will thrive and string together more sequels than Fast and Furious. But not without trials and tribulations.


During a global pandemic, associates helped deliver strong results while delivering essentials. We did it with many associates on COVID leave, and lots of new associates joining your ranks—many without retail experience. We did it while creating our online shopping and delivery options. Given the supply chain challenges, we did it while facing more out-of-stocks than we’ve ever seen.


We did it with customers and members deciding to buy all the toilet paper at once—then our food, then our bikes, and then our toilet paper again.


In 2022, we’re doing it with high levels of inflation. Each challenge we’ve faced could be its own movie, and despite all of this, we’ve brought our purpose to life—in vivid color.


As the Walmart multi-part saga shows, we’re resilient, and we meet the challenges of retail head-on, saying “I’ll be back.” Other than our purpose and values, the only thing that is constant at Walmart is change.


Thankfully, we inherited a culture of change from Sam and all those who came before us. Now, we’ll work to travel back into the future together!


This article was adapted from Doug McMillon’s 2022 Associate Celebration speech. Be sure to watch Doug’s motion picture tour through Walmart’s history.


As we celebrate Walmart’s 60th anniversary, we’re featuring stores and stories from around the Walmart World.