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JCPenny Salesman to Billionaire: Sam Walton

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

When we think of successful entrepreneurs, names like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs often come to mind. However, there are many lesser-known success stories that can teach us valuable lessons about following our passions and embracing non-linear career paths. One such story is that of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. Despite facing numerous setbacks and failures throughout his career, Walton persisted and eventually built one of the largest retail chains in the world. His story is a testament to the power of perseverance, adaptability, and the confidence to pursue one's vision. Walton's unconventional approach to business, which included a focus on low prices and a commitment to serving rural communities, revolutionized the retail industry and changed the way we shop. In this blog post, we'll delve into Walton's unique path to success and explore how his story can inspire those who may be considering a non-traditional career path.

Sam Walton opened his first second-rate store, a Ben Franklin Variety store, in Newport, Arkansas in 1945. It had a model that used low prices as a competitive weapon, and he aimed to make his profit on volume rather than margin. First, Walton learned all the rules to running a second-rate store and then broke all the rules that did not make sense to him. Walton’s first store turned out to be a great success. After only 30 months since opening the store, he was able to pay back in full a loan from his father-in-law to open it. By the fifth year his store had about an annual sales growth of 28%. However, one day he lost everything due to the building's lease having no renewal clause. Walton lost everything he put into his successful building and was back at square one.

Since opening his variety stores, Walton had become a prominent member in the Newport community. He was a member of the Rotary club, a member of the board of deacons of the church in town, and the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Three of his four children had been born in the five years the Ben Franklin store had been open. He was starting to build his life. Yet, one small mistake caused him to lose his store. His family was forced out of town as there was no other location to move his store too. Walton hit the lowest point of his life. He felt like he had done everything right yet was still dealt these awful cards. He blamed himself for what had happened. This was a turning point in Walton’s career. He had been successful, and now he faced a challenge. How he handled this adversity propelled him into what may be one of the most successful businesses we know today, Walmart.

Sam Walton ultimately was able to turn everyone’s doubts into the fuel he needed to go out on his own and bet on himself with the creation of Walmart. Though, early in his career he was told by his manager at JCPenney that retailing wasn’t his speed, his determination would propel him to check out every book on the industry and read day after day while he was serving in the military. Sam knew that his learning from books was one form of education, but learning from his surroundings, his competition, and from his own trial and error was the greatest teacher of all. It wasn’t until he was 44 that he was able to get Wal-Mart figured out, and for most of us coming out of college that gives us 20 years yet to discover where we can make a true impact in the world. Sam was a free thinker, who started out swimming upstream, and it made him strong, lean, and alert. He saw no need to turn around and join the rest of the pack headed down stream. Let Sam Walton’s story be a lesson to believe in yourself, to be relentless in your pursuit in what makes you happy and to do it confidently in spite of all who may doubt your capability.


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