Former Walmart CEO Bill Simon: Business Will Be Pivotal In Post-COVID Rebound

Photo of former Wal MArt CEO Bill Simon posing at UConn Stamford.
Former Wal Mart CEO Bill Simon, pictured above, posing at UConn Stamford. Bill was the keynote speaker for the Rosenberg McVay Lecture Series. (Nathan Oldham / UConn School of Business.)

Long before he became the President and CEO of Walmart, UConn alumnus Bill Simon ’81, ’88 MBA worked as a production manager in an RJR-Nabisco cigarette factory.

With a freshly minted UConn bachelors degree, and having served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Simon was less than thrilled to be designated the factory’s third-shift supervisor. Within weeks he recognized that if he didn’t take charge of his career, he would be in the same job for 30 years.

“I wanted more, and I wanted to be in the marketing department,” he said. “So, one night after my shift ended, I took a shower and washed off the tobacco dust, put a suit on, and went back to ‘hang out’ in marketing.”

He sat in the hallway, using a cart for a desk, read reports, and shared ideas with managers.

“They literally had no idea who I was or what I was doing there. I just kept doing that month after month,” recalled Simon, the keynote speaker at the School of Business’ Rosenberg McVay Business Leadership Series last week.

Eventually he got a coveted job in marketing.

“I wore them down,” he quipped to business students and alumni. “To you I say… challenge yourself, reinvent yourself. Go for what you want. Nothing is stopping you.”

Embracing Change In Challenging Times

“If you want something, go get it. There’s literally nothing that can stop you. We’re blessed to live in a country where you can do anything. I’m living proof,” he said. “I grew up in Manchester [Conn.] just down the road…then went to UConn and somehow I ended up as the CEO of the largest company in the world.”

Simon served as President and CEO of Walmart from 2010-14, managing the $208 billion retailer and its 1.2 million employees.

During his presentation, titled “Embracing Change in Challenging Times,” Simon provided a mix of practical advice and inspiration. Although these are unprecedented times—with a pandemic, economic crisis, social unrest and a contentious election—business is the driving force to return life to normal, he said.

“I spent the last week wondering what in the world I could say to you that would help you navigate 2020 and get beyond it,” he said. “Unlike many other places in the world, [many of] our best and brightest in the U.S. pick business…because it’s a way to advance our country forward.

“When we do well, our economy does well, and every citizen in the country does well. It’s all tied together because we have a consumer-driven economy,” he said. “We will be responsible for the economic rebound in the business community. The path forward doesn’t go through Washington, it goes through American business.”

Although this much disruption is unprecedented, change is a constant in business, he said. The pandemic provides the opportunity to learn, to grow, to become better people, and to forge new alliances around the world.

Live with Determination; Be Exceptional

On a more personal level, Simon urged the audience to work hard, live with determination, to avoid mediocrity, and to strive to be exceptional.

“Good people do well in the long run,” he said. “I would encourage you not to lose faith, not to back up, but to continue to move forward in a robust and aggressive way,” he said.

Simon served 25 years in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves. He recalled one time when he got a 78 on a test. He thought that was fine, but his commanding officer reminded him that meant that 22 percent of the time he “shot down his friends.”

If you’re not the best you can be, you’re not only shortchanging yourself but those around you, Simon said.

“Our society tends to tell us that average means that it’s OK, but really it’s not,” he said. “Nobody wants an average surgeon or an average pilot. You’ve got to do more, you’ve got to put everything into it.”

When looking for new employees he seeks those with drive and a strong work ethic, not just diplomas from prestigious universities.

Taking Risks Is Crucial

Taking risks is an essential part of business growth, Simon said.

“What if George Washington was too scared to leave his plushy mansion and take up the fight for independence? Or if ‘out of an abundance of caution’ Columbus decided not to sail the ocean blue?,” he said. “Nothing in life comes without risk.”

During his time at Walmart, Simon and his team created a $4 flat-rate generic prescription plan, which saved $8 billion for Americans and tripled the company’s prescription drug business.

“I was not a pharmacist. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of some of these drugs,” he said. “But we did it; this was an ambitious plan. It was bold. There was a lot of risk to it and a lot of resistance, and I was nervous.”

Doing the right thing and taking calculated risks, not only benefits your career but enhances the lives of others, he said. During one store visit, a customer told him that because of the money she had saved on medication, she would be able to buy Christmas gifts for her grandchildren, something she hadn’t been able to do in years.

Being a Leader Doesn’t Require a Title

Be the leader people need, Simon continued. Being a leader does not mean you win awards, garner titles or snag a promotion, he said. A leader is someone people trust and want to follow. A leader should be kind, truthful and generous; must be able to plan in great detail but be adaptable when things, inevitably, change, he said.

“Our country isn’t great because of politicians, the government or having the nicest Capitol building,” he said. “It’s a great nation because of you, because of the business community and the good that we do to help people move forward. Every day, when you go to bed, ask yourself, ‘Did I give it all I could today?'”

“Pride, conviction, and confidence are the steps that we need to get things moving in the direction we want them to go in,” he said. “I say this a lot, but we can’t wait for the cavalry to come over the hill. We are the cavalry!”
“I don’t know when this crisis is going to end, but it will end, so keep your heads up and keep moving forward and try to accomplish as much as you can…so that when we come out of it, we’re in great shape.”

To view the recording of the program, please visit: