Sam Walton: Biography & Career Profile

Instructor: Donald Kinney

Donald has taught English literature and history from middle school to college level.

This lesson will explore the life and career of the American entrepreneur Sam Walton, the successful businessman behind Walmart, one of the largest retailers in the world.

Who Was Sam Walton?

Sam Walton was one of the most successful American business entrepreneurs of the 20th Century. Walton is best known as the founder of Walmart, the largest company in the world by revenue, as well as Sam's Club. From his origins in the poverty of the Great Depression to his status as a billionaire, the story of Sam Walton is one of challenges, innovation, and success.

Sam Walton's Early Years

Sam Walton was born Samuel Moore Walton in 1918 and lived in the small town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma until 1923. That year the family moved to Florida and began a series of moves from town to town, eventually ending up in Missouri.

Sam Walton high school yearbook photo
Sam Waltons high school yearbook photo.

Walton distinguished himself throughout his young life in academics, extracurricular activities, and entrepreneurship. He became an Eagle Scout and was, at the time, the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of Missouri. He was voted 'most versatile boy' by his high school classmates and, after graduation, decided to go to college to find a career path to better support his family. While at the University of Missouri, Walton was invited to join an elite and secretive society for men at the top of their class. At the end of his college career, Walton was voted 'permanent president' of the class of 1940.

Life as a Businessman

Sam Walton became a management trainee for J.C. Penney after college and worked for the company for a year and a half. This employment was interrupted by World War II, during which he worked for U.S. Army Intelligence supervising security for prisoner of war (POW) camps.

In 1943, Walton married Helen Robson and would eventually have four children with her. At the end of the war, Walton returned to civilian life and used a small loan and some money he had saved during the war to buy a Ben Franklin franchise--a variety store with a wide range of goods. Walton saw great success at this location and expanded business revenue from $80,000 annually to $225,000. He then repeated this success with a second location. By 1962 Walton had sixteen variety stores.

The Beginning of Walmart

While these first stores certainly created a great deal of success for Walton, his new idea for a discount variety store would eventually propel him to national acclaim in the world of retail sales. The first Walmart was named Wal-Mart Discount City and opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Unlike other chain stores at the time, Walton placed an emphasis on expanding into smaller towns (rather than urban centers) and placing stores within a single day's drive from warehouses.

Promotional poster for the first Walmart
Original promotional poster for the first Walmart.

Walmart initially focused on regional expansion, opening its 24th store just five years after its founding. This growth would be sustained in the years which followed; as of 2015, there were 4,655 Walmart stores in the U.S. alone and 6,310 scattered across 26 countries around the world.

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