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Wal-Mart scours business schools for summer interns, top talent

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

The competitive world of retail and the changing paradigm within, requires top talent recruitment like never before, which is why Wal-Mart scours the nation’s top business schools and offers paid summer corporate internships to 19 students in graduate business (MBA) programs. This year’s crop of finance and strategy interns were chosen from 300 candidates and are set to begin their 12-week stint in Bentonville on May 28.

The MBA interns selected hail from prestigious business schools including, Northwestern University, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina, Dartmouth, University of Texas and Duke.

The program is open to MBA students within one year or less of gradation and cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better. It is a paid internship with a housing stipend for the 12 week period. Wal-Mart declined to give specifics about the MBA intern pay and benefit packages but did say they sought to be competitive.

Charles Holley, chief finance officer for Wal-Mart, said the retailer’s future success requires acquiring top talent.

“We do attract the talent we need because they know when they come to work at Wal-Mart they can have a real impact on millions of people,” Holley said during his March 11 speech at the Consumer and Retail Conference in New York.

RETAIL AMBITION
Kate Hollman, 26, is halfway through her MBA at Northwestern University. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Princeton and has worked the past three years in management consulting.

“I am interested in working in retail and there is no one bigger than Wal-Mart. I like the Wal-Mart culture which I got glimpse of during the interview process. It was amazing, I found everyone to be genuine and down to earth,” Hollman said.

Hollman grew up in Los Angeles and did not have a lot of shopping experiences with Wal-Mart but that changed when she went to Princeton. 

“There was a store near campus that I shopped frequently. But given my limited exposure, I have spent the past eight weeks interning each Wednesday at a Walmart store in Niles, Illinois,” Hollman said.

She said the store internship has been insightful on two levels.

“First, I have been impressed by the employees at the store. From what I have seen they are passionate about the Wal-Mart mission to save people money and making sure the customers get the service they need. This has been neat for me to see with my own eyes. It has also opened my eyes to the real impact saving money has on so many people, I spent four hours cashiering one day and I saw a woman eight months pregnant come in with her husband and really have to think about the cost of a gallon of milk. This mission to save people money really matters,” Hollman said.

Hollman will begin her corporate internship on June 9 to allow time to finish coursework at Northwestern. She first visited Bentonville earlier this year during the second round of interviews for the internship and is excited about her summer stay in Northwest Arkansas. Her assignment is with the U.S. merchandising group, which she said is diverse and full of opportunity. If Hollman’s internship goes as planned, she hopes to secure a position at the home office once she completes the MBA.

TRUSTED TEAMMATE
Jeremy Sowers, 31, has another year to finish his MBA at the University of North Carolina, but he is spending this summer in Bentonville as one of the 15 finance and strategy interns selected.

Sowers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Vanderbilt and spent a few years as a pitcher in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians. After two major injuries, Sowers began to focus on a career in business because he believed the field has more options for future career choices.

He admitted that Wal-Mart was not originally at the top of his list because his father-in-law works at Costco. Through the recruiting process Sowers said he was matched up with Wal-Mart and remembered that a former teammate, Zach Simpson, is a buyer in the company’s grocery division.

“In baseball, there is a trust between teammates so I called Zach to get his thoughts. Being from Fayetteville, I thought Zach might be a little biased. But when I met with the Wal-Mart team through the interview process, I was really impressed,” Sowers said.

As a married candidate with a three-year-old daughter, Sowers said he had to chose a company internship that was also a right fit for his family, who will relocate to Bentonville for the summer as well. Sowers said he was able to find an apartment in Rogers on a short-term lease which is better for his family living situation.

“Throughout an extensive interview process, I was impressed with the people who talked with me. I talked to dozens of people, five or six times. It was clear that they really cared about this program, so I am excited to get there and get started,” Sowers said.

RECRUITING THROUGH INTERNS
“Walmart doesn’t hire interns to do busy work. Across the company we can have 250 interns working and every one of them is assigned a project to work on that will add value back to the company. Whether it’s something in consumer insights, logistics or merchandising, they work on their project and they are involved in other daily tasks. They have access to top executives through the company’s executive leadership speaker series. We look to provide our interns with a blended experience that gives them a real taste of what it’s like to work here full-time,” said Colby Webb, senior manager of corporate finance. 

Webb said recruitment is a relationship game and Wal-Mart spends a lot of time on college campuses with leading business schools to seek out and engage potential talent. He oversees the MBA internship program for finance and strategy and adds that 
Wal-Mart holds meetings on college campuses seeking out potential candidates.

“Wal-Mart may not always be top of mind for the college student, so we make sure we are there to try and build a relationship through the course of the year,” Webb said. “We also look through resume books and target specific candidates that we would like to approach. This year there were 300 candidates that applied for the local MBA internships. We set out to hire 15 and added four more to make it 19.”

The candidates would have applied for the program late last fall and the interview rounds began in January. The group was narrowed down through two rounds of interviews, with the final round being in person in Bentonville early this spring.

Webb said not all finalists got into Bentonville because of bad winter weather. Sowers, said he didn’t make it in from Raleigh, N.C., but was able to complete his case study interview online. 

VALUE PROPOSITION
Webb said Wal-Mart hopes to convert each of the interns it hires into full-time employees. He did not provide conversion rates for the program, but said there are many employees who got their start as an intern.

The internship is a timed tryout for a full-time job and is widely used across corporate America among large and small employers seeking to assess young talent in real time.

Wal-Mart declined to disclose the salary compensation for its MBA internship, but according to Glassdoor.com, the average compensation was $5,000 per month, including housing and relocation. It is unclear if those were positions in Bentonville or at  Walmart.com in San Bruno, Calif., which also hires MBA interns each year.

Employment expert Peter Vogt, a senior writer at Monster.com, notes there is also an intrinsic value of internships that goes well beyond the negotiated salary.

“Employers overwhelmingly point to internship experience as the most important factor they consider in hiring new college graduates for full-time positions, and they have a variety of self-serving reasons for feeling that way,” Vogt notes in his Monster.com blog. 

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He said internships can allow for gaining knowledge that can’t be learned anywhere else and they also expand one’s circle of professional contacts. Even if the internship does not end in a full-time offer, Vogt said, the experience could set one candidate apart for others in the next job interview.

‘DOUBLED THEIR MARKETABILITY’
While any internship is valuable to an MBA graduate, one in finance and strategy from the world’s biggest retailer carries significantly more weight than the same internship with a smaller less respected organization, according to Roger Yarbrough, and executive recruiter for Rogers-based Cameron Smith & Associates. 

“These interns will be exposed to the complex problems that high level executives face every day in a company with nearly a half a trillion in sales operating in 26 countries outside of the U.S. The sheer scale at Walmart is mind blowing. Even if these interns aren’t offered a full-time position with Walmart upon completion of the program, they’ve almost certainly doubled their marketability versus a candidate with a different internship, and maybe tripled against a candidate with no internship,” Yarbrough said.
 
An internship is always a smart choice, according to Yarbrough.

“I encourage all of the young professionals who are close to graduation to get an internship anywhere they can find one. Getting an MBA without some sort of specific experience can make you overqualified and under-experienced. Employers don’t want to pay the MBA level salary for someone with no real work experience,” he added.

The video below is from Wal-Mart and is about its summer intern program.

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