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 dust.

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 Arabia, and far ahead of Sweden, Greece, Switzerland, and Austria.

Four Corners

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 (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 today.

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 on); by 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.

Marketing Spiels

But now, John, you’re at the tip-top level of a company with operations in China, Brazil, Germany, England, Mexico, Canada, England, South Korea, 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. The 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 world 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, man.

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, won’t either.

Copyright @ 2005 The McGill Report