I believe that the greatest entrepreneur of my lifetime was Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. He came from nothing, moving from town to town as a kid during the Great Depression. When he started his retail business in Bentonville, Arkansas, no one could have expected much. At the time (and even today), the retail business was the last place people looked for innovation. It doesn’t have the cachet and trendiness of technology, advertising, entertainment, or even manufacturing. But Mr. Sam (as I knew him) changed the world. No less than more celebrated entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, he knew how to create things that people wanted. He focused on value, on convenience, and on building a reliable brand. He had a vision for retailing, and the result is the largest employer in America today.
I met Mr. Sam at a meeting of Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE), and he became one of my great mentors in business—and a true friend. I learned so much riding in the passenger seat of his pickup truck as he drove from store to store, and watched him interact with customers, employees, and partners. He really cared about people, and he had time for everyone, listening to their feedback and ideas to improve his stores. I keep copies of some of the letters he sent me (typed, with handwritten notes in the margins) framed on the wall as I walk into my office. When he passed away in 1992, we lost a great American, and a great entrepreneur.