The morning after Election Day, Bill Simon, president and chief executive officer for WalMart U.S., was the featured speaker at the First Tennessee Foundation Fifth Annual MBA Symposium. He encouraged Knoxville business leaders and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, MBA students to focus not on who won or lost, but on what needs to be done to improve the nation’s economy.
“Private industry creates jobs, but we’ve given into organizational and national paralysis driven by us waiting for something to happen,” said Simon. “The election gave us clarity, and now it is time for each of us to lead this country to the place where we want it to go.”
Simon is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of WalMart’s U.S. business, leading 1.3 million associates and approximately 3,900 stores. He delivered his passionate “Leading With Purpose” message to an overflow crowd at the Knoxville Marriott. He challenged attendees to set clear objectives, work hard, and be exceptional both professionally and personally.
“Everything you do has to have a purpose. If you are just moving in a direction without a clear objective, you are just wandering,” Simon said. “If you are determined, focused, and won’t be denied, you can do anything you want to do. If you are average, you are never going to be fulfilled. But if you are passionate and work hard, you will change the world.”
Simon pointed to his own career trajectory as an example. After graduating from the University of Connecticut in 1981 with an economics degree, Simon entered an officer-training program in the United States Navy. Following a five-year Naval career, he returned to Connecticut to earn an MBA and then joined RJR-Nabisco in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the third-shift production manager at a cigarette factory. After about a week on the job, Simon realized this wasn’t the career he had envisioned. However, the experience had its benefits because it helped Simon clearly define what he did and did not want to do.
Instead of quitting, he continued to work his shift at night; after a quick shower and change of clothes, he spent his days working for free in the RJR-Nabisco marketing department. “They thought I was crazy,” he recalled. “I showed up in marketing and said, ‘I am smart, and I am free labor.’ I started reading market share data and writing memos. Nine months later, there was an opening in the department, and I became the assistant brand manager on a candy bar brand. So, whatever it is you want to do, do it with all your might. In everything I do, I am either all in or all out.”
First-year UT MBA student Tiffany Rosenbach of Colorado was inspired by Simon’s call to lead and live with purpose. “His words reinforced how focus and determination can contribute to one’s success; he inspired me to reflect upon my strengths and what’s next for me in my career,” Rosenbach said. “I’m determined to put myself in situations where I am fulfilling my purpose and working toward specific objectives, not just spinning my wheels.”
Rosenbach’s classmate, Darren Brown of Austin, Texas, was equally encouraged by Simon’s message that “anything is possible.” Said Brown, “MBA students are all ambitious, so it was encouraging to hear him say that you can pick your own direction and, with the proper drive and focus, you can achieve your goals.”
In addition to recounting personal anecdotes, Simon shared examples of leading with purpose in his role at WalMart U.S., which serves more than 140 million customers each week and had revenues of $264 billion in fiscal year 2012. Simon and his team have focused on reinvigorating WalMart’s core business model—lowering costs in order to offer customers lower prices—and fulfilling the company’s mission of saving people money so that they can live better. Simon sees helping customers stretch their paychecks and provide for their families as WalMart’s purpose as a company.
“The vast majority of people who work at WalMart believe in that mission and live that mission every day,” he said. “We’re not always perfect, but we try our best to live and operate with a purpose. If somebody goes to another store because our lines were too long and then pays more for a box of cereal, we have failed. But if we do our jobs well, people will pay less. That’s our purpose, and it drives everything we do.”
Symposium attendee Chuck Morris, president and founder of Knoxville-based Morris Creative Group, said he was impressed with Simon’s willingness to share his time, insights, and passion for what he does. “I was struck by how appreciative and down-to-earth he is. His lesson about paying your dues by putting in the hard work was particularly important for the MBA students who are focused right now on landing a specific job. Simon emphasized that success isn’t about the job title you have, and it isn’t something that’s handed to you. You have to want it, you have to earn it, and whatever you do, you have to be all in or all out—never halfway.”
Funding for the UT MBA Symposium was a generous gift from First Tennessee Foundation, a private charitable foundation solely funded by First Tennessee Bank. Since its formation in 1993, First Tennessee Foundation has been committed to building a better Tennessee by awarding more than $60 million to nonprofit organizations serving Tennesseans. To plant the seeds of success in our state, about one-third of foundation giving goes to education and lifelong learning.
Previous UT MBA symposium speakers have included Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
During his trip to Knoxville, Simon also served as the keynote speaker for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Supply Chain Forum, sponsored by the college’s Department of Marketing and Supply Chain Forum.