NEW YORK — At a Tuesday morning keynote session at this year's NRF show, Walmart CEO Bill Symon set out to dispel some common perceptions about his company, and in doing so, made some fairly major commitments.
The context for those commitments was his recent frustration with Capitol Hill.
"The election clarified for me that those of us outside of politics need to get to work," he said. "The build-up to the jobs report each month is problematic to me. It's symptomatic — waiting for someone to do something. The beauty of the private sector is that we don't have to win an election or convince Congress to do what we need to do — we can just move forward, doing what we know is right and what we need to do to grow our business."
Simon then offered up the three things his company was going to do in order to move forward:
Support good retail jobs
Simon called attention to the NRF's statistic that retail directly affects one in four American jobs, calling that "a phenomenal number." He also took issue with the popular notion that all retail jobs are entry level, or that a retail job is somehow less than desirable.
"You and I know that our workforce works hard every single day to serve customers and build better lives for their families," he said. "This is not an accident and it's not a logistical miracle — it's a people-driven success story. Our people work hard every day and I'm proud of them. Our industry provides opportunity to tens of millions of people. And from that opportunity comes hope."
He pointed out that at Walmart, 75 percent of the current management team was hired from within and rose up through the ranks.
"This industry is the greatest engine of opportunity in the U.S. today," he said. "Every retailer in this room is keeping the American dream alive, and that deserves to be recognized."
Jobs for veterans
Simon got enthusiastic applause when he announced the second of his three points: Beginning Memorial Day, Walmart will offer a job to any honorably discharged veteran within the first twelve months after his or her service has ended. That could result in as many as 100,000 new jobs.
"There isn't a better group to lead the revitalization of our economy than the nation's veterans," he said. "After WWI when the doughboys came home, that led to the roar of the 1920s. And after WWII when the soldiers came home, that led to the greatest economic boom in our history."
Sadly, he said, too many of today's returning veterans are struggling to find work. But they possess the exact skills that would make them so valuable to retailers, including performance under pressure and the ability to learn quickly.
"We know not every veteran wants to work in retail, and that's okay," he said. "But every veteran that does will have a job."
He then encouraged other retailers to make a conscious focus on seeking out and hiring veterans.
"We could be the ones that step up for our heroes just as they stood up for us, and we can do this now. You won't regret it."
More American manufacturing
Simon then took on the prevailing idea that Walmart's shelves are filled with products made anywhere but here: According to data from Walmart suppliers, he said, items made, grown and sourced in the U.S. account for two-thirds of what the company sells.
"But of course, there's room for more," he added.
Simon said his company is committing to buying an additional $50 billion worth of U.S. products over the next 10 years. The company is offering longer-term purchase agreements "where it makes sense," and is convening a manufacturing summit this summer to investigate more opportunities.
He suggested that doing so makes financial sense, and used cotton as an example: 70 percent of the cotton grown in the U.S. is shipped overseas, where it is spun into its eventual product, then shipped back.
"Two trips across the ocean — why wouldn't we do this (here)?" he asked.
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