Mr. Sam Meets The East End

Written By: Ian  Leigh

Mr. Sam Meets The East End By Ian Leigh Like the dorsal fin of a fish, Long Island’s East End juts up and out. It was once a quaint and especially lovely locale. Ocean waves, casual restaurants, summer breezes — even the most uptight New York City financier could loosen his tie, take off his cufflinks, and be casual. Or he or she could appear to be casual. It’s not real, of course; cell phone business calls persist to break the mood. And the East End can be New York City east — celebrities pretending to be casual. The casualness can be deceiving and off-putting. Then, Big Box stores started to arrive — Wal-Mart, Kmart, Costco, Target and Sam’s Club — mixed with Manhattan-based restaurants and boutiques. A McDonald’s can be dressed down to look like a beachfront resort — but it still serves Happy Meals to the kids. There was a time before all that, before the invasion of the Big Box chains and the big name restaurants — which have brothers and sisters in the Big City. Once it was a land that belonged to the locals most of the year, with the summer invasion of the beautiful people. Now it’s year-round wineries, trendy vineyards, mansions on the Bay and the Ocean. It was a place where the wealthy play it business-casual every summer. Even K mart first stuck its toe in the New York waters years ago, opening a lonely store in Staten Island. The store by itself could not make real money on its own. But it was convenient for the suspender crowd of Wall Street — the store was designed to sell stock, to put a face to a name, and let the brokers see what one actually looked like — all in an afternoon without requiring an airport. Like a studio prop, it was make believe. I lived in between the money-making Manhattan and the casual, but wealthy, Hamptons. I was brought up in the drudge of middle income Commack. Really, it was a nowhere place. Neither was it urban rich to the West or East End trendy. Commack was just stuck in the middle — an instant community built on potato fields. But then I had an experience that changed everything. My face pressed up against a candy store window for a fleeting view, for a short moment — a really brief moment — I had the chance to be part of Big Store greatness that later changed the East End; really, all of society. As a young business writer, I was called to the earliest of annual meetings — even before the company was public — by the Great Man himself, Sam Walton. Or Mr. Sam, as he was known locally. He was the Father of Wal-Mart and, later, Sam’s Club. I flew in a little four-seater plane flown by his pilot-son, Robson. It was thundering and lightning when I boarded in Tulsa, Okla. But when we arrived at the dirt-runway airport in Bentonville, Ark., Mr. Sam was waiting for us right next to where the propellers stopped. Men rushed from black cars and gathered our luggage. Like a ’30’s Hollywood moment, we were soon on our way on dusty roads with large trenches on either side. I rode with the friendly Mr. Sam in a pick-up truck that smelled. It was, he smiled, because of the hunting dogs that usually occupied the rear bed. He asked me how many miles were on the truck. But I had already snuck a look — 67,000, the odometer said. “No,” Mr. Sam answered. “It’s really 167,000. This truck is on the second time around.” He was nothing but frugal. And clever. He had been a Ben Franklin variety store franchisee with his brother, Bud. He parlayed all that into Wal-Mart Stores. He parlayed that again into the Sam’s Club chain, which he learned from John Geisse, the man who invented Target Stores and Wholesale Club. Sam knew how far a dollar could be stretched. He told me about making money on the buy and distribution, not the retail. He would laugh at times. Then be quite serious the next. During the day he was Mr. Sam in the old pickup truck and the $5 haircut. At night, he could be dapper in a fine Town Car. Everybody knew him. His own employees, the competition — everyone. To see him in his own environment when he wasn’t acting for Wall Street was a treat. He was going to change shopping in all towns, big and small. He would sell to the poor and even wealthy, like those on the East End. His desk at work was in an open office — opposite brother Bud’s. I was lucky enough to meet real estate mogul Trammel Crowe once. He had the same sort of desk — by itself, but in the open. He had no secrets to keep from anyone, he said. People could go through his desk or hear his conversations. No matter. He had so many real estate projects, many of them he had never even seen. Mr. Sam was a genius. You knew that right away. He was King of Arkansas, but he was coming your way. No Wal-Marts in Staten Island for him. If Wall Street wanted to see what was coming, they had to travel to Arkansas — two or three plane stops worth. So they came, fancy-attired brokers carrying all kinds of elaborate charts. He was wonderful to me. Singled me out for real trouble, though — he couldn’t wait for a white water rafting trip with me on Saturday. A New Yorker about to be taught a little Southern hospitality by Mr. Sam himself. He couldn’t wait. He was only a little mischievous — it would all be in good fun. Mr. Sam seemingly liked everyone and everything. The only thing he didn’t like was unions. He did not want anyone telling him how to run his business. Even to this day, with Mr. Sam long gone, Wal-Mart is still non-union. That’s why it hasn’t opened in New York City. Mr. Sam knew something Big was coming. To small towns. To overseas countries. Even to wealthy places, like the East End of Long Island. Maybe he did not have designer clothes, but you could not beat his prices on hard goods — laundry detergent, antifreeze, you name it. “People complain about the feathers on our clothes,” he laughed. “The trucks that take turkeys to New York — we back haul ’em and bring clothes down here cheap.” He and Robson flew to scout sites for new stores. And nobody could beat Mr. Sam when it came to merchandising. He walked with me into a local Bentonville K mart and knew everyone. He was upset that K mart carried Coca Cola licensed trays and Wal-Mart did not. So he bought one to show his managers. But he also saw K mart featuring the hottest trend then, roller skates, on its front endcaps. Wal-Mart did not carry any. “Show me a sidewalk for roller skates in Arkansas,” he challenged. “The skates may be popular, but you can’t use ’em here.” Mr. Sam and his wife, Helen, were living in a trailer at the time. A fire had burned their home down. So he was in temporary housing until the new home was ready. Imagine, Mr. Sam living in a trailer. That night, Mr. Sam had arranged to honor a local manager with a fish fry in the woods. A local Wal-Mart store person was given a free fishing rod as a gift for setting everything up. He knew to cook the fish in a special kettle using Seven-Up instead of water to sweeten the fish. Mr. Sam was in fine form that night. He saw the future as clearly as he saw the woods. It was getting stormy out at the end, but all was done before the rains came. About 5 a.m. my phone rang in the motel room. It was Mr. Sam, a disappointed Mr. Sam. “I have been looking forward to taking you white water rafting for days. But even I can’t do that to you. The river is going to be very rough with this weather. So our trip is off. I’ll give you a choice. You can have the day off…or see more stores with me. “I’ll go with you,” I replied, and I did. I didn’t hear from Mr. Sam for about a year. Then I did a special profile on a discount store chain called Mohr-Value out of Kansas. I wrote about everything, from profitability to costs, department by department. Out of the blue, Mr. Sam calls me to tell me he had read the piece and then bought that chain. It was Wal-Mart’s first acquisition. “I bought every store they owned,’ a proud Mr. Sam said. “Except the unionized ones. I shut them down for good.”