By Michael Corkery
When navigating the nation’s culture wars, Walmart follows a strategy is has honed for years: alienate as few customers as possible and do no harm to its core business. In many cases, it appears to be working. Walmart’s stance on guns, for example, drew a lot of attention but had “no discernible impact” on overall sales, according to a top executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Once viewed in many parts of the country as a union-busting killer of Main Street businesses, Walmart and its chief executive, Doug McMillon, have received plaudits of late for taking stands not just on guns, but also issues like carbon emissions and Confederate flags. “When did Walmart grow a conscience?” read a headline in The Boston Globe.
Interviews with more than a dozen Walmart executives, former executives, company advisers and regulators show that the retailer’s approach to public policy issues is more nuanced than a desire to simply do the right thing.
On the environment, Walmart has been viewed as an industry leader by reducing carbon emissions in its trucking fleet and supplier network, and cutting back on plastic packaging for thousands of food and household items it sells in its stores.
But internal company discussions about plastic grocery bags show the tension between Walmart’s environmental concerns and its sales goals.
“My impression is that this is a company that does seem to care beyond the bottom line,” said Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “But you also have to keep in mind, it is still a highly efficient competitor.”
It is perhaps no coincidence that Walmart’s public relations victories come as its rival Amazon is being battered by antitrust concerns and criticism about onerous working conditions, issues that the original big-box retailer has spent years trying to defuse, with some success.
Many credit Mr. McMillon with positioning Walmart as a socially responsible company, while also finding ways to increase sales in the United States for 20 consecutive quarters. Through a spokesman, Mr. McMillon declined to be interviewed for this article.
Publicly, Mr. McMillon has said he wants to stay above the political fray. But when Walmart takes a stand, Mr. McMillon has tried to convey the company’s position without “spiking the football” and inflaming the other side, one executive said.
Mr. McMillon, 53, grew up in a small city in northeast Arkansas, but later moved to the northwest part of the state to Bentonville. His father was a dentist and his mother stayed home taking care of the children. Mr. McMillon started working at Walmart in high school and went to the University of Arkansas. He worked his way up the company ladder running Sam’s Club and then the international division. Mr. McMillon was the favorite of Mr. Walton’s heirs, who own a large amount of Walmart’s stock and sit on the board.
Mr. McMillon voices Mr. Walton’s paternalistic view of Walmart as a benevolent employer and economic actor, whose size and scale can force change across the world.
“The world is a better place with Walmart in it,” Mr. McMillon told thousands of cheering employees at last year’s shareholder meeting. “The next generation needs this company.”
Many in the administration, which at the time was also pushing for a higher federal minimum wage, appreciated Mr. McMillon’s support on the overtime rule. But some of the officials did not overlook that Walmart, which employs about 1.5 million people in the United States, remained resistant to unionizing its American stores.
The same year Walmart raised its starting wage, the company also eliminated health care coverage for tens of thousands of part-time employees. The company says it provides health insurance to 1.1 million workers and their family members.
“Their strategy is to give a little here and there, but not provide the thing that is most valuable to workers, which is collective bargaining,” said Sharon Block, who ran the policy office at the Labor Department during the Obama administration and now teaches at Harvard Law School. “That is the only way Walmart workers are going to make any real gains.”
Helping shape Walmart’s public affairs strategy is Dan Bartlett, the former head of communications for President George W. Bush. Mr. Bartlett is known for his pragmatism, an ability to work with both parties and for having an understanding of the Deep South, according to a former Walmart colleague. One of Mr. Bartlett’s top deputies was a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential campaign.
It was the needs of Walmart employees, Mr. McMillon said, that prompted him to speak out after the racist-fueled violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Walmart is considered the nation’s largest single private employer of Hispanics, and just as many African-American women shop at the retailer as rural white men.
Mr. McMillon, who was serving on a White House advisory board on manufacturing, publicly criticized President Trump for not condemning the white supremacists at the rally. Other executives on the advisory board stepped down, although Mr. McMillon stayed on until Mr. Trump disbanded the group amid the controversy.
“When something like that happens we have to look at our own associates as leaders and feel good about how we are representing the company,” Mr. McMillon said in the 2017 interview.
This year, Mr. McMillon is again advising the Trump administration. In March, he and several other chief executives of large companies joined the White House’s American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, which is discussing issues around workers whose jobs are being displaced by technology.
Walmart did not issue a release about Mr. McMillon’s appointment to the board.