The IT Inside the World's Biggest Company

The IT Inside the World's Biggest Company

After several years out of the press spotlight, Wal-Mart reopens its doors for CIO's exclusive interview with CIO Kevin Turner, who shares the secrets behind Wal-Mart's global growth, what's happened since September 11 and which technologies the retailer is eyeing for the future

Wal-Mart is big. To understand just how big, consider that on November 23, 2001, the 40-year-old retailer sold more than $US1.25 billion worth of goods in a single day. The company has 4457 stores, 30,000 suppliers, annual sales of more than $US217 billion - and one information system. According to CIO Kevin Turner, running centralised IS with home-grown, common-source code gives Wal-Mart a competitive advantage and helps the company maintain one of the lowest expense structures in retail.

Turner stepped into the top CIO spot two and a half years ago at age 34, when former CIO Randy Mott departed for Dell. Turner had served as Mott's second in command, and prior to that he ran application development as Wal-Mart's youngest corporate officer (29 years old). In 1997, Turner became the first recipient of the Sam M Walton Entrepreneur of the Year award, a very high honour at the company. But when asked about his accomplishments, this CIO talks primarily about the capabilities and accomplishments of the Wal-Mart IS team, the vision of its CEOs past and present, and how blessed (his word) he is to work with such a remarkable group of people and for a company like Wal-Mart.

CIO: Wal-Mart's the largest company in the world now. Has that changed your priorities?

Kevin Turner: You know, we don't talk a lot at Wal-Mart about being the largest company in the world. [Founder] Sam Walton never had a goal of being the largest company in the world, nor did [previous CEO] David Glass or [current CEO] Lee Scott. What we do talk about is being the best company in the world. And having something called the divine discontent, which says that you'll never be satisfied with where you're at or where you're going, and that you can always improve. Striving for excellence is one of our three core beliefs. Sam died in 1992, and everything in the company in the last 10 years has changed except for three things: have respect for the individual, practise excellent customer service and strive for excellence in all that we do. In that third core belief, which is very strategic for us, is that divine discontent.

CIO: You also have three basic philosophies behind your IS strategy. Tell us about that.

Turner: The first philosophy is to run a centralised information system for our operations all over the world, and we run that from Arkansas. The second is to have common systems and common platforms. The third is to be merchants first and technologists second.

Now, along the way, a lot of folks were not optimistic that we'd be able to grow as much as we have and still keep our IS centralised and running on common platforms. But that's been one of the things that's allowed us to drive our costs down and helps us be really efficient. Whether you run a store in Bentonville, Arkansas, or in Miami, Florida, or in Leeds, England, the processes and the systems are generally the same. We're able to transfer people from one store to the other, and they're able to pick up right where they left off. We don't have significant downtime or start-up time in the transition.

CIO: How have you made that work, given your rate of global growth and your numerous acquisitions?

Turner: When we started down the path to become a global company, we were driving the systems that had worked in the United States out to the other countries. We made a lot of mistakes doing that, and there were times when we questioned whether we were going to be able to run the world centrally from an IS perspective. What we've come up with is a model of decentralised decisions but centralised systems and controls. We will have a common system and a common platform, but we have to allow a great deal of flexibility in our systems so that the people in those local markets can do their job in the best, most effective way.

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