May 24, 2005
Little Johnny Fleming on Top of the World
By Doug McGill
The McGill Report
ROCHESTER, MN -- Well, I’ll
be darned. Johnny Fleming, the pudgy little boy who hung around our
house when we were kids, has become
one of the most powerful businessmen in the world.
A Wal-Mart press release from
April 28 tells the story: “Wal-Mart
stores, Inc. today announced the promotion of John Fleming, 46, to Chief
Marketing Officer for the company beginning May 2.”
John was my kid brother’s
best friend, one of a tight gang of classmates who hung together from
elementary through high school carousing,
bragging, planning wild exploits, and generally kicking up teenage
Now little Johnny runs the
global marketing and advertising efforts of the world’s largest
corporation with 1.7 million employees, working at 5,170 stores in
nine countries, that last year sold $285
billion worth of stuff.
That’s more than eight
times the size of Microsoft in sales. If Wal-Mart were a country it
would rank in size just behind Saudi
and far ahead of Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, and Austria.
John, wherever you are, my sincere congratulations.
We dropped out of touch for
a few decades, but word always came through of your rise in retail
from Dayton’s to Target to Walmart.com (where
you were president and CEO), and now to this job where, according to
your press release, you will run all of Wal-Mart’s marketing, advertising,
and consumer communications worldwide.
It’s that last word, worldwide, that catches my attention the
most, John, and it’s why I want to write you this heartfelt note
When we were growing up together
here in Rochester, where I still live, our world was bounded by 6th
Avenue (the street we both lived
the Soldiers Field Golf Course where we played golf by day and furtively
collected lost golf balls from the water traps by night; by Edison Elementary
School and Mayo High School; and by the various countryside spots we
picked for our Friday night beer bash “keggers.”
These were the four corners
of our world – our north, east,
west, and south.
But now, John, you’re
at the tip-top level of a company with operations in China, Brazil,
Germany, England, Mexico, Canada, England,
Argentina, and Puerto Rico. In some of these places, like England,
War-Mart is the largest company in the country.
In every country you operate,
Wal-Mart is, de facto, intimately involved with that country’s
economy, politics, and culture.
I saw you on CNN the other day, John, and you looked spiff in your wet-look
hairstyle and shiny gold tie. You looked relaxed and confident and were
quick with the latest Wal-Mart growth numbers and marketing spiels.
But dude, some friendly advice: You’re beyond all that now. You
need to be.
You’ve always thought of yourself as a businessman, and you’re
a damn good one, but for this new job you need to grow and change more
than ever before.
Race to the Bottom
You’re on the world stage now, Johnny boy. You’re a leader
of men and women in many countries you have never visited, in whose homes
you have never shared a meal, whose languages you don’t speak.
You need to be humble.
Even your great management
skills aren’t good enough any more
to excel in your new job. You’ve got to be a diplomat now, and
a global citizen.
I saw an interview recently
with one of your new colleagues in the top tier at Wal-Mart, in charge
of international and corporate affairs.
interviewer asked the executive whether Wal-Mart’s race-to-the-bottom
pricing strategy exacts an overall cost to the world that’s simply
not worth it.
The Wal-Mart man kissed the
question off. “This question almost
belongs to a Nobel Prize-winning laureate in economics, rather than an
executive from Wal-Mart,” he said. “It’s an issue that’s
far greater than Wal-Mart.”
I hope you do better than this guy, John.
The Golden Rule
It’ll be hard. You’ll be pressured a million times now to
give this same answer – “it’s a bigger question than
Wal-Mart” – whenever a journalist asks about Wal-Mart’s
impact on the world.
But what a cowardly cop out
that answer is. Since when was it okay for anyone to willfully ignore
the impact that he or she has on the
around him – much less for the world’s largest company to
do it? To shuck off this vital moral question to the “experts?”
It’s the Golden Rule,
To not deeply ask yourself
about Wal-Mart’s impact on the world,
especially now as you take on these awesome responsibilities, John, would
be a missed opportunity at the least.
At the worst, it would be like the auto executives who still say that
global warming is a mere “scientific issue.”
Or, you’d become like the cigarette executives who for decades
argued that smokers’ health was a “medical issue.”
Little Johnny Fleming from
6th Avenue in Rochester would never have said such things. I hope the
new John, sitting on top of the world,
Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report