The sage of Omaha has nothing on Wal-Mart for chutzpah. Thousands of investors make the pilgrimage to worship at the feet of Warren Buffett during Berkshire Hathaway’s annual general meeting.
However, the world’s largest retailer fills a stadium in Fayetteville, Arkansas, from the crack of dawn. On Friday it was whipping the crowd into a celebratory lather with a marching band and renditions of the corporate cheer (“Who’s number one? The customer! Always!”). Recession, what recession?
The good news perhaps for those not part of this fan club is that the American economy cannot be in total collapse if Wal-Mart is still expanding.
The pace will slow slightly as fewer superstore openings mean that the company expects to add only 22,000 “associates” (Wal-Mart’s chosen euphemism) compared with 38,000 in the last financial year.
Still, as it grew to become the largest private employer in the US, Wal-Mart has expanded its workforce during every single recession – from 2,600 employees in 1971, the year before its stock market listing, to more than 2.1m globally now.
But there are faint niggles that might cause its cheerleaders to frown. There was no mention on Friday of the Employee Free Choice Act. If passed, it would make union organisation easier within a company that has fanatically, and so far successfully, resisted unionisation of its US workforce.
And for all its foreign expansion – this week Wal-Mart opened its first Indian wholesaler as part of a two-year-old joint venture with Bharti Retail – the group has yet to find a formula to match its success in the US.
Still, the company continues to gain customers in recessionary times, and Wal-Mart is feeling confident enough to announce a $15bn share buy-back. With its shares valued at a relatively cheap 13 times prospective earnings, even investors might raise a cheer.
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