Inside This Issue - Opinion
At bottom, Shewmaker was a great retailer
December 6th, 2010
by David Pinto
Jack Shewmaker’s sudden death in mid-November, the result of a massive heart attack at his home in Bentonville, Ark., stunned, shocked and saddened those many people to whom the former Walmart executive was a friend, mentor and confidant, among them several of the editors and salespeople who work at Racher Press, publisher of Chain Drug Review.
Initially, more than a few people refused to believe that this larger-than-life personality, so integral to their lives, was gone.
Much of the initial reaction emanated from the man himself. To those who knew Jack Shewmaker, he appeared indestructible, an omnipresent figure in the retailing community and in the lives of the many people he embraced, a businessman who nonetheless found time to travel and see the world. He fished in Alaska, enjoyed winter sports in the Rockies, explored Antarctica (an excursion that almost cost him and his wife, Melba, their lives). He traveled the world, from South America to Asia, in search of adventure and new experiences. He never stopped pushing the envelope.
Yet, at bottom, what Shewmaker was more than anything else was a retailer. Indeed, no retailer ever lived who had mastered the challenges, subtleties and intricacies of mass market retailing so completely and successfully as to elevate its practice and execution into both art and science.
When he joined Walmart in 1970, he became the newest member of a regional discount chain that operated 38 stores, most of them in Arkansas. When he departed 18 years later, Walmart was a global company poised to become the largest and most successful retailer the world had ever known.
Shewmaker began consulting for Woolworth’s, in Australia, shortly after he left Walmart. When he signed on at Woolworth’s, it was a distant No. 2 to Coles Myer in the Australian grocery business. At Shewmaker’s death Woolworth’s had emerged as the clear leader in the Australian retailing community — while being recognized and hailed as one of the world’s great mass retailers.
Indeed, Shewmaker was one of those rare individuals who succeeded at everything he tried his hand at. Almost alone, he breathed life into Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), an organization founded to teach college students about business by encouraging them to master and follow business practices as part of their college curriculum. Today SIFE stands alone as a global organization, admired not only for its success in teaching the precepts and rewards of business but for the contributions SIFE graduates continue to make to the U.S. and international business communities.
Along the way to building Walmart, transforming Woolworth’s and guiding SIFE, Shewmaker inhabited many communities.
He built Jac’s Ranch into one of the nation’s largest cattle-breeding enterprises, one whose annual cattle auctions attract buyers from around the country. His classic car collection is the envy of every daredevil who ever dreamed of getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Among the many boards who benefited from his tenure as a member was that of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the country’s legendry medical complexes. He was as capable an amateur skier as could be found anywhere. And he knew just about everyone in the retailing, business, government and political communities worth knowing.
Surprisingly, his impact on chain drug retailing was minimal, given his immense contributions to the mass retailing community. He was an occasional speaker at NACDS meetings, but much of what he said got lost in an industry that had not yet come to appreciate the wisdom behind Shewmaker’s stories, the subtlety and urgency of his message, the importance of the lessons he tried to teach. Some chain drug industry people were put off by Shewmaker’s insistence that there was usually only one way to do things. His way.
Yet Sam Skaggs, at the pinnacle of his success in food and drug retailing, once talked to Shewmaker about joining American Stores. Skaggs always believed he made a mistake by not pursuing Shewmaker more forcefully and persistently.
During the years that Stew Turley was building Eckerd into America’s premiere drug chain, he spoke to Shewmaker about becoming Eckerd’s president. In the end, concerned, perhaps unduly, that Shewmaker’s presence at so high a level might unsettle the drug chain’s management team, Turley decided to keep his current managers in place.
Who knows how different Eckerd’s future might have been if Turley and Shewmaker had joined forces. On the other hand, who’s to say how effectively these two dynamic personalities could have worked together. Or how long.
In the end, all that’s probably for the best. For Jack Shewmaker had very few loves, passions and allegiances in his life. For him the key people included his wife, Melba; his children; former Walmart vice chairman Tom Coughlin; Roger Corbett, the CEO of Woolworth’s during those years when Shewmaker was crucial in that retailer’s ascent into the first ranks of mass retailing; and Jack Kahl, former CEO of Manco, one of Walmart’s key suppliers.
And then, of course, there was Walmart. There are those who insist that Walmart was the love of Shewmaker’s life, the child he fondled, nursed, coerced, cajoled, scolded and guided to greatness. There is little doubt that Walmart would not have become the retailer it ultimately did were it not for Shewmarker’s presence, impact and stubborn insistence that he was right, a recalcitrance that often pitted him against Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton.
After leaving Walmart Shewmaker remained on the retailer’s board. But it was never the same. People who had become tired of listening to him when he was the company’s president and vice chairman stopped listening entirely once he had lost the power to enforce his positions.
Now this giant of a man — no other words succeed in adequately describing Jack Shewmaker — is suddenly gone. The people who know him best are left with no choice but to accept that fact. It will be a long time before they begin to live with it.