Maxie Carpenter never dreamed he would lead one of Northwest Arkansas’ most prolific nonprofit organizations when he waived goodbye to a near 30-year career at Wal-Mart.
Carpenter, the director of operations for the Samaritan Community Centers, speaker and educator, reflects on the long journey he traveled to this stage of his life.
As a 20-year-old, Carpenter happened upon a job at Wal-Mart Store No. 1 while attending the University of Arkansas in 1971.
“I had been working for Cooper Communities as they were establishing Bella Vista, while I attended the University. Basically, I typed lot contracts, mowed lots and regularly changed out the towels and bedding linens in the mobile homes on the hill near the Sunset Lodge,” Carpenter said.
That was until he remembered a short conversation having several years back with an older gentlemen who challenged him to a game of one-on-one basketball in the Bentonville High School gym.
“I was 16 and quite a gym rat, the coach gave me a key so I could stay late and shoot hoops. One afternoon an older gentlemen approached me to play a game of one-on-one. I was a confident 16-year-old and he was a determined and crafty opponent.” Carpenter said.
After an hour or so Carpenter remembers that the gentlemen asked his name and then introduced himself as Sam Walton.
“He gave me a little white business card with just his name on it and said he ran a little retail store on the Bentonville Square. He said if I ever needed a job to look him up. I was 16 and only focusing on my chances to play college basketball, but I kept the card,” Carpenter said.
Blessed with five sisters, Carpenter the oldest sibling, said he walked on to play basketball at Harding University in Searcy during the fall of 1968. But he did not earn a scholarship and after two years left school to come home and work, while also trying to finish his degree at the UA.
“One day on my way home from Bella Vista I drove by the original Wal-Mart Store in Rogers and happened to remember the offer Sam Walton had made some four years earlier,” he said.
After completing a job application at the Wal-Mart Store, Carpenter said he got a call the next day for an interview.
“The store manager Clarence Leis called me in because I had put Sam Walton down as reference. He asked me if I really knew him and I admitted that I kind-of knew him but it had been a few years back.” he said.
When Leis told him that he had called Sam Walton to confirm the reference, Mr. Sam did remember Maxie as the kid he had played basketball with a few years ago.
Carpenter says, “That was my first lesson learned from Mr. Sam, never forget anyone because everyone, yes everyone is significant. This was a powerful life lesson for me and greatly shaped my business philosophy in the years to come.”
He said relationships and people are what get things done around the world.
MINNOWS AND PAINT
Leis put Carpenter to work and his first detail at Store No. 1 was mopping up water around the concrete minnow bends in the bait shop section of the sporting goods annex.
“I have to admit, that wasn’t the job I had envisioned at the time,” Carpenter joked.
After an hour or so Carpenter remembers a department manager coming for him and redirecting his service to hardware, as he was asked to unload and stack cases of Sherwin Williams paint for the rest of the afternoon.
“I was literally exhausted when I got home that evening and I remember thinking there was no way I was going back to that job the next day. But oddly enough, I stayed nearly three decades,” Carpenter said.
Within a year, Carpenter had worked his way up to department manager and left the University two classes short of earning his bachelor’s degree when Wal-Mart offered him a position in the company’s assistant manger training program.
“I was tired of school and just sick that I didn’t have the credits to graduate so the Wal-Mart job looked good to me and I jumped onboard."
“I never looked back, but just hit the road, literally, with Wal-Mart. My first assignment was in Clarksville, (Arkansas). I would move every six months for the next eight years.” Carpenter recalled.
He spent time as assistant manager in Booneville, Ark.; Hugo, Okla.; Broken Arrow and Jenks, Okla.; Opelousas, La., and wound up in Tulsa in 1985 to open the company’s first metro store – defined as a store in a town of more than 50,000 people.
The 1980s were a robust growth period for Wal-Mart and Carpenter was along for the ride.
“I told them I would come back to Tulsa in 1985, but I really wanted a district manager’s job after one year and they agreed. The Tulsa store did very well and after the first year they elevated me to district manager but kept me in Tulsa for three years,” Carpenter said.
He was moved to Las Vegas in 1988 to help oversee Wal-Mart’s westward expansion.
“All I could say was golly, because I was a country boy and Las Vegas was a big city to me. But we stayed three years and loved it there, Carpenter said.
During his time out west Carpenter worked with Andy Wilson, who was his regional vice president at that time.
“I had the opportunity to work with my friend Maxie for many years at Wal-Mart. We opened stores together and later worked side-by-side as business partners in the People Division,” Wilson said.
“Maxie is passionate about people, he truly cares about each individual and is determined to help them meet and exceed their goals and their objectives in work and life. I consider Maxie a life long friend,” Wilson added.
Carpenter said he got a call around 1991 from Bentonville to assume the role of operations coordinator which meant a move home to the corporate mothership. Within four months Carpenter was tapped to head up training for the People Division.
“I was in shock I couldn’t believe they wanted me for an HR job, because I had spent my entire career in operations. But there was a different culture at that time and they did a wonderful job of cross-training and shifting people around which I definitely benefited from. That rarely happens today,” he said.
Carpenter retired in early 2000 sensing his opportunities to continue up the corporate ladder were limited in part because he had not completed his college degree.
“I often scoffed at the need of a college degree, but that was because I didn’t have one.” he said candidly.
Post retirement, Carpenter began a consulting business and spent two years obtaining his bachelor’s degree online, which he completed from Warren University in 2004.
“The only regret I have is that I didn’t finish it sooner, because it would have prepared me to continue up the corporate ladder. I am fortunate to have been part of a company that allowed me to play in a lot of sandboxes and learn so many things early on. It has made me a very flexible individual and having finished later has given me a different perspective that perhaps helps me as an instructor today,” Carpenter said.
In 2008, John Brown University approached Carpenter to teach some classes in the business management and ethics recognizing that he did not hold a master’s degree but had nearly 30 years of management expertise with the biggest company on the planet.
“I really love being in the classroom and I think having spent so many years in the corporate ranks I can help students gain a thorough understanding about the working world,” he said.
This past year he was asked to teach a sophomore class in logistics at the University of Arkansas.
In January 2012, Carpenter was asked to rekindle his corporate management skills as director of operations for the Samaritan Community Centers of Northwest Arkansas.
“I had been counseling with nonprofits since 2008 and loved it,” he said.
The Samaritan Community Centers began as an outreach of Fellowship Bible Church in 1989 and now operates with a $3.5 million annual budget, feeding thousands of local residents each month through lunch cafes, food pantries and the snackpack for kids program which provides week-end snacks to thousands of area children at risk for hunger.
“We spend $30,000 a month at Sam’s Club for snacks, I think that makes this nonprofit Sam’s largest customer,” Carpenter said.
The center’s two thrift stores provide one-third of the annual budget, to which Carpenter said, “I am a retailer, what do you expect?”
He says the charity is blessed immensely from much generosity shared among several corporate sponsors, but the need only continues to grow.
“On any given day the waiting rooms in our Springdale and Rogers centers are filled to capacity with clients – young and old, employed and unemployed, healthy and sick, married and single – many of whom have never before asked for this level of personal assistance."
During this past year more than 100,000 people in four Arkansas counties were helped through Samaritan Community Centers. This represents a 53% increase in clients in just three years, according to a message on the nonprofit website.
Butch Scruggs, former director of the Joseph Project, which was a ministry to assist out-of-work professionals during the recession and recovery period, says he called on Carpenter to speak and minister to many folks looking for work a few years back.
"Maxie is one of the most Godly, giving, and caring men I have ever known...’the real deal.’ He engages his audience (one or many) in a down to earth way on any number of topics. He addresses the complicated, complex, and concerning things of life with an uncanny ability to communicate them in a simple, relevant, and compelling fashion,” Scruggs said
The journey from big business to nonprofit/educator has been eye-opening for Carpenter who says he’s quite content in this next phase of his career.