Walmart logistics exec talks leadership, lessons from Sam

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Chris Sultemeier leads about 80,000 employees in Walmart’s logistics division. He oversees the massive supply chain operations for more than 180 distribution centers, fulfillment centers and import warehouses. It’s a safe editorial assumption to suggest he knows a few things about leadership.

“He makes sure all those products get to where they are supposed to be on the shelves at Wal-Mart so we can continue to buy them at everyday low prices,” Andy Wilson, a former Walmart executive and now the leader of ministry and operations at Cross Church, said Thursday in his introduction of Sultemeier, the executive vice president of logistics for Walmart U.S.

Sultemeier was the featured speaker for Cross Church’s weekly Summit Luncheon. He was called in to speak when following an unexpected death in the family of Walmart U.S. Chief Operating Officer Gisel Ruiz, who was the scheduled speaker.

Sultemeier outlined a few leadership rules during his speech, but was quick to point out that he in no way has yet perfected them all.

“It’s a journey for me,” he said.

BACK STORY
He grew up in Fort Stockton, a small west Texas town about 80 miles south of Odessa. He credits much of his work ethic to his father, his faith to his mother and his grit and gumption to his older identical twin brothers whom he said wrestled him night and day.

Sultemeier said he wanted to play football after high school, but after an earlier injury the only college that looked his way was Army. In 1980, he entered West Point, where he would earn a degree in mechanical engineering.

“I had the opportunity to observe many different leadership styles at West Point and one early lesson I learned was that motivating your team through threats and intimidation doesn’t work,” he said. “Humble yourself and lead by example. Today we call it servant leadership and that’s the most effective way to lead your team.”

LESSONS FROM SAM
Sultemeier joined Walmart in 1989 following his military service. He said the lessons he learned from Sam Walton in those early years helped shape his career. He said Walton has been gone for 22 years but the lessons are as relevant today as there were 50 years ago. Sultemeier noted the three rules under which he tries to operate.

• Rule No. 3: Be a servant leader.
He showed a brief video clip of Walton talking about the importance for executives to interface and know their store employees. Walton taught executives to never miss an opportunity to sit down with store employees to discuss what was on their minds.

• Rule No. 2: Leaders must have integrity.
Sultemeier shared a recent quote attributed to recently retired CEO Mike Duke: “Integrity is the foundation for everything. If you have integrity, you can be trusted. And when you can be trusted you can build those relationships with your associates that bear fruit. If you don’t have integrity you simply won’t be able to lead.”

Sultemeier said the integrity rule was straight out of Walton’s book of leadership knowledge.

• Rule No. 1: Leaders never stop learning.
Sultemeier shared a couple of personal stories about Sam Walton and how he witnessed this retail master craving more learning, even in his final days.

Around 1990, Sultemeier was a project manager in logistics tasked with opening a new distribution center in Indiana. He was coached by Lee Scott – who would eventually become the Wal-Mart CEO – about exactly how to go about the process of site selection and how to make the recommendation to the executive committee ,which included David Glass and Don Soderquist.

Sultemeier made the presentation and said it went very smoothly, no questions were asked and the project was approved. But just as they were about to leave, a grey-haired Sam Walton came in and asked what what they were doing.

“We told Mr. Walton that we were planning to build a new distribution center. He said, ‘Great, I’d like to hear about it.’ We sat back down ... literally an hour later I finished the presentation. He must have asked me 50 questions. He wanted to know every nuance and detail about the project. He taught me a lesson that day: No matter how high he was in the organization as chairman of the board, and no matter how weak his health was at the time, he still wanted to know those details,” Sultemeier said.

Sometime later, Sultemeier said his dad was visiting from Fort Stockton, and attended the Wal-Mart Saturday morning meeting as his guest. Guests at that time were asked to introduce themselves. When the meeting was over, Sultemeier said they ran into Sam Walton in the hallway.  

“He immediately engaged my dad in a long conversation wanting to know all about Fort Stockton. He asked my dad what kind of community it was, what kind of people lived there, what the retail competition was like. The questions just kept coming. Two years later Wal-Mart built a store in Fort Stockton,” Sultemeier said. “Mr. Sam was constantly learning, probing and digging into the business.”

GIVING BACK
Sultemeier said being a great leader should also encompass giving back to the community. He referenced a book he is reading for a second time, “Half Time”, by Bob Buford. Sultemeier said moving from a state of success to one of significance is the subject of the book.

He challenged the business professionals at the luncheon to look for opportunities in their own lives where they can take their gifts and talents honed in professional careers and put them to work somewhere else within the community. He asked the business professionals how they might be using their gifts and talents to give back to the local community.

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“One program that has inspired me as much as anything is a program started by the Walmart fleet drivers called Walmart Heart. These drivers after long hours on the road still find time to volunteer in this program that caters to children with disabilities or long-term illnesses.” he said.

Walmart Heart began about 12 years ago when a young boy named Jake had a wish through “Make a Wish Foundation” to be truck driver. The program took off from there and just kept going with sponsored Walmart Heart events that take place when a need is brought to their attention.

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