Walmart U.S. president and CEO Bill Simon has the coolest job in the world, and he explained why during a luncheon presentation Thursday at the Cross Church in Rogers Ark. where he touched on his military career, being exceptional and overcoming evil.
During the half-hour presentation focused on leadership, Simon recounted his life’s journey, how he wound up at Walmart and why waking up to go to work every day is such a joy. Although the venue was one of Northwest Arkansas’ largest churches, Simon’s biblical references were few with the exception of a quote from the Old Testament about how we have been placed here “for times such as this,” which served to illustrate his larger point about making a difference in the world.
"Right here from this Northwest corner of Arkansas we changed the world and Sam Walton started that,” Simon said, referencing one of the legendary Walmart founder’s famous quotes about bucking conventional wisdom by swimming upstream.
During Walton’s era, that meant taking a contrarian approach to operating the business and achieving success by standing out and being different. Simon added his own interpretation to the concept of swimming upstream.
“In order to swim upstream you have to be exceptional. You have to be better or work harder than the rest of the fish or be swept away by the current,” Simon said. He then went on to contrast the notion of exceptionalism and average in a way that is reminiscent of author Jim Collin’s good is the enemy of great philosophy.
No one wants to be an average student, teacher, employee or surgeon or firefighter that puts the fire out most of the time, according to Simon, adding, “Average isn’t good enough in anything we do.”
Simon learned about being exceptional when he joined the Navy right out of college and encountered a captain who changed is life during a lengthy naval career.
“For 25 years I got to see what living with a purpose looked like and what exceptional leadership looked like,” Simon said, referring to the captain’s leadership style. “Stripes and medals don’t make a leader. They give you positional authority, but they don’t give you personnel authority and there is a big difference. We saw a lot of people get medals and awards and promotions, and we saw a whole lot more people who didn’t but we would still follow them anywhere.”
Following the Navy, Simon went to work for a CPG company and was enjoying life in Miami where he served as a divisional president with a good salary and a nice boat he used to take his sons fishing. But then in the fall of 2003 he got a call from then Florida governor Jeb Bush who was looking for some business leaders to share ideas about how the state could operate more efficiently. Simon heeded the call and headed to Tallahassee to share some ideas. Subsequently, Bush called and asked Simon to join the state and implement the ideas, which he wound up doing, but only after a life-changing moment in the aisles of a Walmart store. That’s where after a visit to pick up a few things turned into a more elaborate family affair Simon said he came to the conclusion to pursue the opportunity with the state.
“I realized that I needed to contribute and go work for the governor because it was the right thing to do, and I wanted my boys to see what life was like when you try to do the right thing and live in a way that fulfills the gifts you have been given,” Simon said. “We have all been given gifts and have an obligation to use them in the right way or nothing less than the future greatness of the nation is at risk.”
Citing a quote attributed to Sir Edmund Burke, Simon said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men to do nothing.” He asked those in attendance to imagine throughout history of all the instances where good people did something to create and then defend the United States.
“I’ve come to realize that I need to be part of something bigger. I think we all need to be part of something bigger,” Simon said. “At Walmart we are given that opportunity and I was given that opportunity as soon as I joined the company.”
It was early in 2006 when Simon joined the Walmart healthcare team and was part of the group that developed and rolled out the company’s $4 generic prescription program.
Simon joined Walmart in March, worked on the idea in April and May, pitched it in June, got it approved in July and rolled out in September a program that created an incredible amount of change in the healthcare world.
“The only thing anyone can point to in the last 50 years – not laws, government, nothing – has lowered the cost of health care like that program did by taking $3.5 billion out of the cost of prescription drugs for the United States,” Simon said. “That is why I have the coolest job in the world because I get to wake up every day and go do that,” he said referencing Walmart’s mission of saving people money so they can live better.