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My Book Reviews

Category: Businessperson autobiography
Published: 1992
Read: 1999
Reviewed: May 2010

This is the story of Sam Walton, which is told through his own words as well as interviews with many people who worked with him during his early days, when his success was built on old-fashioned hard work and energy. He talks about his youth, a time when he possessed an uncommon entrepreneurial spirit and spent time selling magazines and working odd jobs. He moves on to talk about his work history before Wal-Mart, during the early days of the five-and-dime stores when he worked at J.C. Penny and Ben Franklin. He then talks about various operational aspects of Wal-Mart, such as: the financing of early stores, taking the company public, building a management team, and its relationships with vendors like Proctor & Gamble. The book covers different business concepts, such as: merchandising, distribution, business strategy, hiring, logistics, and management principles.

The book shows how Walton's innovative thinking and sharp business acumen led to Wal-Mart developing into a market leader. Walton had a clear gift for merchandising and used it to become a leader in determining which products sold best at the local level. And although Walton didn't like technology at first, Wal-Mart became a leader at integrating technology into their business in order to optimize logistical issues like inventory control and product ordering. One story talks about how Walton would fly around in a small plane and get an aerial view in order scope out the best locations for new stores. When you see how Wal-Mart's innovation allowed them to surpass their larger competitors like K-Mart and Sears, you appreciate that Wal-Mart's competitive advantage (whether fair or not today) was justly earned.

Today, Walton tends to be a very polarizing figure. He is a hero to free-market ideologists, but a villain and the father of big-box retailing which put many mom-and-pops out of business. Although one Amazon reviewer pointed out that he was "willfully blind to the negative effects of his creation", a valid counterpoint is that he (or anybody for that matter) could not have possibly imagined the influence that his company would eventually have. While reading this book, you get the feeling that Walton's singular focus on beating competitors was the result of an innocent, child-like excitement about being the best at what he did. He was like a kid with a lemonade stand who sold the lemonade at the lowest price - but then the next thing you know, you are the biggest company in America. There was no evidence that his dominance was part of a premeditated master plan. And while he does overstate his relationship with his employees (his "associates"), he also had a history of being unnecessarily generous with his store managers by sharing profits with them and giving them autonomy, which I assume was not too common at the time.

Many people like to point out that the irony of the book's title, "Made in America", when very little of what Wal-Mart sells is actually made in America. To be fair though, this is the story of Wal-Mart during its entrepreneurial and mid-sized phase - back when it didn't have the global footprint that it does today. And in defense of the accusations that Wal-Mart destroyed business, today's hyper-competitive economy is much more of a zero-sum game than the positive-sum game that it used to be. Wal-Mart's early growth didn't come at the expense of mom-and-pops as much because the American economic pie was growing much more, whereas today an extra dollar of sales is more likely to come from market share gains, rather than organic economic growth.

Although the social debate about whether Wal-Mart is a good or bad for America is not done yet, I think the argument should be done outside the scope of this book, considering that Walton has been dead for almost two decades now.

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