CEO Series: An Interview with Walmart’s Douglas McMillon

As part of this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival CEO Series, James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, interviewed Douglas McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart International.

Walmart International is a fast-growing segment of the company’s overall operations, with more than 5,000 stores and 730,000 associates in 26 countries. McMillon previously served as president and CEO of Sam’s Club, an operating segment of Walmart, with sales of more than $46 billion during his tenure.

McMillon gave a view into his company, speaking about culture, values, the company’s dedication to sustainability, to honoring local cultures, supporting small businesses and local farmers. It was a view into the company  that might influence the way some people feel and think about Walmart, as evidenced at the end of the session when Fallows asked the audience whether they had a better impression of Walmart after hearing McMillon speak about the company and its values. About 80% of the attendees raised their hands.

Global Culture, Local Decisionmaking

McMillon has a long history with Walmart. Most of his 20-year career has been in merchandising in the Walmart US division, primarily in food, apparel, and general merchandise. He’s brought that experience to Walmart International and says that there are common themes across the global organization: the commitment to providing customers with a way to save money, to take care of their families, and to send kids to college. There’s a lot of commonality with the larger organization’s core values, which include: respect for the individual, striving for excellence, and serving the customer, says McMillon. “Our culture is strong, and our culture is global.”

However, despite the common themes, global culture and pan-organizational values, McMillon said that there’s a lot of autonomy in the decisions that are made across Walmart International and even in the stores’ branding. Many of the stores in the 26 countries are the result of acquisitions, and don’t necessarily bear the Walmart brand. “What our customers want to buy in Shanghai is different than what our customers want to buy in Oklahoma, and we need to respect that.”

Partnering with Small Business

Walmart International also partners with small local farmers. “Most of what we buy is local,” said McMillon, “and some of these farms are very small, hardly bigger than a home garden. We don’t believe that you can feed the world if you don’t engage small farmers. We’ve been taking our learnings from our work with small local farmers in Central America and going to China and other parts of the world. The customer gets a fresher product — a local product. There’s a winning equation there.”

Building a Sustainable Company

The company is also committed to sustainability, according to McMillon. Walmart International is working with NGOs and governments to set sustainability standards in different parts of the world, and to establish sustainable value networks. The company’s three sustainability goals include: renewable energy, more sustainable products and packaging and zero waste. McMillon says that as a result of these commitments, the company has actually seen bottom line results: saving money, while operating more efficiently and in a more sustainable way.

Looking Toward the Future

McMillon also talked about the impact and opportunities surrounding the global middle class in China, the importance of the changing role of women around the world and the company’s new focus on ecommerce, mobile and social commerce.

He wrapped up by saying, “We are not perfect, but we are a force for good, and things are better because we are here.”