Mr Sam: How Sam Walton Built Wal-Mart and Became America’s Richest Man
By Karen Blumenthal
(Viking ,New York, 2011, $17.99)
Whether you love or loathe Wal-Mart, it’s impossible to deny the discount chain’s influence on American consumption. In Mr. Sam, Karen Blumenthal has written a dual biography: that of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and the retail giant he created.
Neither a heroic rags-to-riches saga nor a muckraking exposé, Mr. Sam chronicles Sam Walton’s rise from relatively humble beginnings to financial success. Walton’s energy and ambition surfaced early: he was a talented athlete and student leader during high school and college, and he scheduled his many extracurricular activities around his part-time jobs. He brought the same drive to a career in retail sales. Even as an elderly man, Walton constantly visited his stores and those of his competitors, always seeking ways to improve customers’ experiences and lower prices. Although Walton enjoyed spending money on hobbies and family vacations, he hated displays of luxury. Amassing wealth was never his goal. Instead, he thrived on the challenge of expanding his company, seemingly pursuing business for its own sake. While Blumenthal never condemns Walton or Wal-Mart, she succinctly addresses the controversies that have plagued the chain: its reluctance to promote women and minorities, its suppliers’ use of sweatshop labor, its low level of charitable giving, and the small businesses that have closed in its wake.
As well as a portrait of an entrepreneur, Mr. Sam is a cogent introduction to economics for middle-grade and young adult readers. Blumenthal explains profits, stocks, and discounting in terms kids can understand and discusses Wal-Mart’s success in the context of twentieth-century retail trends. Throughout the book, Blumenthal uses charts to illustrate the changes to the average American family’s income and expenditures over Walton’s lifetime. Educators may use Mr. Sam to supplements units on economics and history.
Sam Walton, Blumenthal admits, was a hard man to research and know. By focusing on Walton’s business career, she has captured the essence of Walton and written the sort of biography he would have appreciated.
Dorothy A. Dahm