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Wal-Mart's evangelist 

Spokesman puts out positive spin for the mega-merchant

Wal-Mart is ... well, it's huge. And blue. Ubiquitous, too.

How big? In Georgia, 97 Supercenters, 17 discount stores, 21 Sam's Clubs and nine distribution centers employ 52,728 folks, as of last month. Another 105,805 supplier jobs are created by Wal-Mart.

Each one of those Supercenters dotting the landscape churns through about $140 million a year in cash register cha-chings. Add it all up -- 3,800 facilities, 1.6 million associates, and $285 billion in worldwide sales last year. Whew!

So, like it or not, Wal-Mart simply "is." Not all of the lawsuits, not all of the union activists, not all of the "evil corporation" documentary DVDs for the MoveOn.org folks, not all of the carping liberal columnists (Who? Me?) are going to wipe Wal-Mart off the globe.

Now that we've got that straight, here's my confession: Yes, I shop at Wal-Mart. I've got five kids. You figure.

As Michael Mills -- we'll come back to who he is in a minute -- says, "I can get my organic lettuce, have my car's oil changed and buy a wide-screen TV all at one stop. You can't beat that."

I'm a hypocrite, too, often chiding the world's largest retailer for squeezing the life out of small-town businesses, for pushing its employees' kids onto public health care programs, and even for being chintzy in spreading its advertising dollars to, um, weekly newspapers.

Taking shots at Wal-Mart in the past wasn't much fun. The giant seldom noticed detractors' Lilliputian darts. Sam Walton, the man who put the "Wal" in "Mart," frequently opined from his Bentonville, Ark., Mount Olympus that his stores were the best public relations. People could easily find out the truth about the low prices and abundant merchandise. The company's focus was directed inward, tuning the efficiency machine to a screaming penny-pinching roar.

Times change. Wal-Mart ballooned so large, it drew attention for more than its prices.

Were wages too low, and health benefits skimpy? Did women and minorities hit glass ceilings? What about those pesky reports of illegal immigrants being hired to clean stores? Were local retailers sucked dry by the blue vampiric monster skulking on the edge of town? And with shelves stocked from China, whatever happened to "made in America"?

Let's meet Michael Mills, that organic lettuce guy I mentioned. The new "face" of Wal-Mart, Mills is 32, with twinkly blue eyes, a natty blue blazer and a never-flagging, big-tooth grin.

He talks the environmental talk, having toiled on such sacred-to-the-left issues as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. He wants buildings constructed with more attention to energy and conservation -- and actually thumped his chest when he reported two new Wal-Marts were built last year conforming to such stringent standards. He tutors kids at risk for dropping into the pit of poverty and despair. He's been active in the League of Women Voters and has labored on get-out-the-vote drives with a group headed by Rebecca Lieberman, the daughter of Sen. Joe.

Hell, if that isn't enough, Mills beams about his latest project: "I'm starting a record label," he says with a bit of uncharacteristic shyness. "It's called the Barefoot Mailman, and we've already got our first performer lined up."

This is not the corporate spokesman of bygone days. Wal-Mart, until about two years ago, epitomized the worst in company communications. Responses -- usually in the form of ponderous pronouncements -- rumbled from faceless execs in Bentonville. Problems were always discounted, without much evidence or logic. Questions were rebuffed. And Wal-Mart became a punching bag for unions, some politicians and reporters.

Two years ago, Wal-Mart began launching return volleys. It set up a website (www.walmartfacts.com) that touts its achievements. "We gave $24 million to Hurricane Katrina relief, and when we do something like that, we're going to tell people," Mills says. "We did good things 10 years ago, too, but we could have done a better job at getting the message out."

Mills earned his spurs in the piranha pool called Georgia politics. A Rochester, N.Y., native, he graduated from Georgia State University and landed a job as a legislative aide to a Cabinet officer. In 1998, he signed on with Democrat Mark Taylor, who was running for (and won) the lieutenant governor's race.

"It was a brutal time," Mills recalls. Taylor ended up suing an opponent for libel over ads claiming Taylor had used drugs. In his first recorded response to a hardball question, Mills reacted to an opponent's broadside by telling the Augusta Chronicle in September 1998, "Maybe, um, I don't know ... we have no comment." Not an awesome start as a spokesman.

Mills is no longer tentative. He's been with Wal-Mart for six months, and his portfolio has expanded from Georgia to include seven Southeastern states.

One of his early assignments was to meet with an environmental group. "They wanted to know why we flatten so much land. It was 45 minutes of getting beat up." But Mills and the treehuggers found some common ground. As a result of the meeting, Mills had many nonindigenous "predator" plants pulled from stores.

"It's easy to sleep at night," he says while sipping a latte at a downtown Atlanta Starbucks -- and looking like he could be the urbane, hip, wired poster child for the coffee dealer. "I know, I know that there are a lot of good things we're doing, and to me it's a lot of fun getting that word out, breaking preconceptions." As an example, Mills handed out $8.5 million in charitable contributions in Georgia last year -- this year, he'll be playing Johnny Appleseed around the Southeast.

Or, he beams, "We're expanding by 20 percent our fleet's mileage, and we've put in place a program to reduce waste at stores by 25 percent. How can anyone argue with actions like that?"

Critics contend their anti-Wal-Mart campaigns are muscling the company to change. Mills shrugs at that suggestion, saying the company is responding to its own associates more than anything else.

He confronts criticism head on. What about all of the kids of Wal-Mart employees who end up on taxpayer-paid health care programs? Mills answers that Wal-Mart has 18 new insurance programs, beginning at $11 a month, with all a family's kids taken care of for 30 cents a day. "Thirty percent of our associates didn't have health insurance before they came to work for us," he says. "I like to talk about the 160,000 that have been taken off the rolls of uninsured."

Low wages? Mills: "Pay is competitive" with other retailers, and average income is double the minimum wage. Dead-end jobs? "Our regional vice president, Tony Samples, started 30 years ago pushing carts for one of our stores. Three-quarters of our managers started as hourly associates."

As for killing small business, Mills points to the growth of new retailers around Wal-Marts -- and mixed-use residential-retail projects at many urban centers. "Retail is changing," he says. "We're part of that. Some people want convenience and price. Others want something else. The mix will be different than today, but there will be room for everyone."

Mills is evangelical in his zeal. I don't convert easily. But I'm thinking about attending Mills' church this weekend for a sermon on low-priced big-screen TVs.

Senior Editor John Sugg's blog is at www.johnsugg.com. He can be reached at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

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