Meet the Biographer: Karen Blumenthal

 

In 2011, former Wall Street Journal writer  and award-winning children’s author Karen Blumenthal published Mr. Sam, a middle-grade biography of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about meeting Walton, seeing another side of the entrepreneur, and educating young people about business. 

Kidsbiographer:    In Mr. Sam’s afterword, you mention that you were once part of a Wal-Mart store tour that Sam Walton gave Wall Street analysts. What was that experience like, and what were your initial impressions of Walton?

Karen Blumenthal: In the mid-1980s, I began to write about Wal-Mart from the Dallas bureau of The Wall Street Journal and went to Bentonville, Ark., to cover the annual shareholders’ meeting. Wal-Mart had invited stock analysts and a few journalists to meet with Sam after the meeting and to attend the weekly Saturday morning managers’ meeting as well.

The whole experience was truly fun, a real insight into the careful attention Wal-Mart paid to its sales, stores, and products, and how deeply involved Walton was in every detail.

After the annual meeting, we were loaded onto a small bus and driven to a Wal-Mart in Rogers that had been newly remodeled. Sam led us on a tour of the store, pointing out changes to the aisles, which were supposed to improve sales of certain specials, and the checkout counters, which were intended to speed up that process.

From there, he took the whole busload to a nearby Kmart for comparison. It still cracks me up to think of 15 or 20 out-of-towners traipsing into a competing store behind Sam Walton, who pointed out both the good things and the less-good things that Kmart did. One of the managers greeted Sam as he went by and just looked at us as though these tours were an everyday occurrence.

Sam also took us to an outlet of a small grocery chain he had invested in that was meant to be very low cost. Goods were displayed in their shipping boxes and stacked way to the roof, sort of like you see at Sam’s Clubs now. Sam predicted groceries would look like this in the future—but that didn’t fly with customers. I’m glad our grocery stores are quite a bit neater and more attractive than he envisioned.

It was a memorable afternoon and it was clear Sam was a something of a control freak, but also a master marketer. There was no small talk or chitchat—he was all business, and all about making Wal-Mart better.

Kidsbiographer:  How, if at all, did your perception of Walton and Wal-Mart change while you researched Mr. Sam?

Karen Blumenthal: Because I had followed Wal-Mart and Walton so long, nothing in my research terribly surprised me. But I came to see a more human side of Sam to go with the businessman I already knew.

I ran across a few instances where his other executives described their children running up to Sam to get a hug or climb into his lap. Toward the very end of the project, I even saw a photo of him holding and hugging a grinning Chelsea Clinton, when she was a little girl.  I never saw this side of him—and I really wish I had—but I hope he came across as someone capable of being like that.

I also hope readers come away with a different perception of Sam. Wal-Mart has been criticized so much in recent years for various things that many people assume Sam was somehow evil. I hope those who read the book will have a broader view of the man and what drove him.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite parts of Mr. Sam is the Our Money charts, which show how Americans’ income and personal expenditures evolved during Walton’s lifetime. Where did you obtain these numbers, and how have kids and adults responded to this feature?

Karen Blumenthal: I’m so glad you asked about the Our Money charts! I was very excited to include them.

In 2006, The New York Times wrote about a report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics called “One Hundred Years of U.S. Consumer Spending.” The study tracked spending in New York and Boston and compared it with the entire U.S.  I found the study online and bookmarked it because it included some estimates of consumption of alcoholic beverages, and I thought it might be useful for the prohibition book I wanted to write.

When I actually started working on Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, I realized the consumption numbers weren’t that helpful. But I was fascinated by the spending changes and got excited about using them in Mr. Sam. I was able to update the study with more recent data from the BLS.

I was really concerned when one reviewer called the charts irrelevant, but have been pleased that many people have since said they enjoyed them and found them enlightening.

 Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young people in response to Mr. Sam?

Karen Blumenthal: The most gratifying feedback I’ve gotten from young people is that they liked the book and found it very readable. I didn’t know what to expect—many of them know Wal-Mart, but not Sam, and there is a LOT of business information in the story.  But I shared it with several of my favorite young people and they told me they truly enjoyed it—and I’ve even got a little bit of fan mail, which doesn’t happen very often with nonfiction.

Kidsbiographer: Books about business, finance, and economics for young people are relatively rare, and so are classroom units on these topics. During my first twelve years of schools, in the 1980s and 90s, we only addressed economics twice: a short unit in 9th grade social studies and even briefer coverage in 10th grade US history. As a Wall Street Journal writer and an author of books about finance, what sort of curricula would you like to see schools develop about these subjects?

Karen Blumenthal:I would hope students would get some understanding of economics and how business works all the way through school. Perhaps we were spoiled, but my daughters got a pretty good dose of it in the Richardson Independent School District here in Dallas. In the second grade, they formed little book companies, writing books and selling them for $1, and then tallying up their sales and costs. In the fifth or sixth grade, they spent a day at a wonderful place called Enterprise City, a mock city in one of the elementary schools, where everyone either ran a business or worked at one, or took a government job. They received paychecks and got to spend them, and the most profitable businesses got an award.

There was a lot of preparation for this experience and the kids thoroughly enjoyed it. Their experiences made me think all schools had some of these lessons and my books would fit right in.

I hope that readers of all of my books for young people get a better sense of basic concepts like supply and demand and how the world of money works without even realizing those ideas are in there.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects, especially those for young readers?

Karen Blumenthal: Thanks for asking! My next book, Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different, is out February 14, and I think this book and Mr. Sam would make a very interesting combination for teachers and librarians.

Jobs and Walton were of very different generations, in very different businesses, and served very different consumers. Walton wanted to give us necessities like toothpaste and underwear at the lowest possible price, and Jobs gave us way-cool technology at premium prices.  Walton talked in dollars and cents; Jobs liked to quote Dylan and The Beatles.

But as two of the greatest entrepreneurs of the last century, they were also very similar in their drive, ambition, and utter dedication to their businesses, and I found the similarities both striking and fascinating.

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