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Religious CEOs: Walmart Founder, Sam Walton


The discount chain founder may have honored his Christian faith, but he never rolled back on the almighty dollar.


In Walmart (WMT) founder Sam Walton's posthumously released autobiography Made in America: My Story, the entrepreneur laid out a series of ten commandments which he believed represented an ideal way of running a business:

1. Commit to your goals
2. Share your rewards
3. Energize your colleagues
4. Communicate all you know
5. Value your associates
6. Celebrate your success
7. Listen to everyone
8. Deliver more than you promise
9. Work smarter than others
10. Blaze your own path

Although the list lacks a few "Thou shalts" and "Honor thys," the initiatives do reflect Walton's Presbyterian faith and his commitment to running a multinational brand with a set of morals. But many would question Sam and his Walmart brand's actual moral integrity as his chain of stores grew and drove out the smaller competition.

Walmart has long made efforts to reach out to the religious community. Whether it's hiring a former nun to govern company policies or inviting church officials to its corporate headquarters to help combat negative publicity, Walmart knows a faith-based demographic is too big to lose. But are its -- as some would argue -- empty gestures representative of its founder?

Before running a chain of Ben Franklin discount franchises with his brother James throughout Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas -- which would eventually give way to the first Walmart in 1962 -- Walton was a leader in his local community of Bentonville, Arkansas, as head of the Rotary Club and chamber of commerce. He became a member of the city council and launched a Little League program. And as a man of faith, he taught Sunday school at the local Presbyterian church.

Through the years, Walton maintained a public image of giving back to his employees. He established a profit-sharing plan with branch staffs, providing stock options and store discounts, and was among the first company chiefs to do so.

But in terms of actual charity, Bob Ortega -- author of In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton and How Walmart Is Devouring the World -- had a different opinion. Ortega suggested that it was his wife Helen who prodded Sam to donate to causes she believed in. In his book, Ortega wrote:

"As for Sam Walton himself, what moved his spirit of charity was his wife's sharp elbow. In 1985, Helen persuaded him to donate $3.6 million for scholarships to three small Arkansas colleges for students from Central America. She was behind donations that helped build a fine arts center and a gym at two of those same colleges."

Ortega also alleged that Sam established the Walton Family Foundation, along with two others, due to Helen's instigation. And it was her contributions to the Bentonville High School and local offices of Planned Parenthood that propelled her to become the first chairwoman of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation.

He goes on to write that Walton accepted much publicity for Walmart's philanthropy even when the retailer was dead last in the percentage of earnings it donated to charity. Case in point, in 1981, Walmart donated $64,700 to charities -- or roughly 0.1% of the company's 1981 net income.

Sam himself also made the case that Helen was the charity motivator of the two in his own autobiography.

"We feel very strongly that Walmart really is not, and should not be, in the charity business. We don't believe in taking a lot of money out of Walmart's cash registers and giving it to charity for the simple reason that any debit has to be passed along to somebody -- either our shareholders or our customers."

Not exactly the most religious of sentiments.

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