University of Tennessee

Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO, talks retail lessons at Graduate Business Symposium

November 23, 2016

Lee ScottLee Scott, chairman of the BDT Capital advisory board and former CEO of Wal-Mart, spoke in early November, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business First Tennessee Foundation Graduate Business Symposium.

Scott is widely credited for reinvigorating Wal-Mart’s mission and transforming the company into a respected corporate leader during his 2000-09 tenure.

Diane Mollenkopf, McCormick Associate Professor of Logistics at Haslam, introduced Scott to the filled lecture hall.

“Lee boldly proclaimed – and I remember when this happened – that profits and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive goals,” Mollenkopf said. “That went beyond Wal-Mart setting their own goals for environmental stewardship. It led their supplier companies to embrace environmental sustainability initiatives in their own supply chains.”

In addition to sharing stories about his rise to leadership in his address, “Lessons I Have Learned,” Scott also discussed the intersection of politics, society and business.

“Sometimes your harshest critic may be the most helpful voice you hear,” Scott said, describing his relationship with Sister Barbara Aires, a Catholic nun who exerted pressure on Wal-Mart while advocating for corporate responsibility.

“Sister Barbara made Wal-Mart a better company, and she made me a better leader,” Scott said. “She was one of our harshest critics, and we let her in instead of putting the sandbags up.”

Lee ScottAnother lesson Scott said he learned in developing his leadership style was to ask himself if his goal was to make a better company or make everyone in the room happy.

“I hired the best people I could find,” he said. “The greatest skill I brought to merchandising was that I didn’t know anything. I listened to everyone, and we formed consensus.”

Scott’s speech also emphasized the state of the retail industry today.

“It’s a different world in that people are not acquiring and collecting things the way they used to,” he said. “You’re spending your money on cell phones, data plans and Netflix. All of those things come out of the wallets of retail.”

Still, Scott cautioned that the business community should not count retail out.

“The fastest-growing retailer in the United States today is Aldi,” Scott said. “They have a limited selection, but they have what people want. Dollar General and Dollar Tree are also doing very well. If I’m on a budget and have $20 to clean my house, then I’ll be looking to buy a mop, gloves and cleaning solution all together for that price. Price per ounce is no longer a critical aspect, and not everyone will be shopping on Amazon and having products delivered to their doors.”

The Graduate Business Symposium has been held since the late 1980s. Previous guests have included Indra Nooyi (CEO PepsiCo), Gerald Ford, Colin Powell, Robert Reich, Warren Buffet, T. Boone Pickens, Tom Johnson (president of CNN), Elizabeth Dole, Bob McDonald (chairman, president and CEO of Procter and Gamble) and Fred Smith (CEO of FedEx).

The event provides an opportunity for Haslam MBA and other graduate students, as well as members of the business community, to learn from a speaker of significant stature. This is the seventh symposium sponsored by the First Tennessee Foundation. 

About the First Tennessee Foundation

The First Tennessee Foundation is a Tennessee nonprofit corporation that was formed in 1993 by First Tennessee Bank’s parent company, First Horizon National Corp. (NYSE: FHN). Since its founding, the First Tennessee Foundation has granted more than $65 million to strengthen nonprofits in communities the bank serves.