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Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart’s Nature

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 21, 2009

Our piece, Did Wal-Mart Have A Role In Ballantine’s Fall? — continues to bring in an avalanche of mail. Roughly 90% of the notes we receive at the Pundit are one-liners and we don’t typically run too many of them because they are just words of appreciation. This time we received some short notes with some substance:

Nice article. The 850-pound Gorilla is not a “partner”……

— Bill Young
Sales Representative
Stemilt Growers Inc
Wenatchee, Washington

Someone once told us a little saying, and we have somehow come to think of it many times while doing business. They said if an elephant and a mouse can’t get along, you have to assume that the elephant isn’t doing all it could.

Maybe though Bill’s simian analogy is more apt. It is like all those stories you read about peaceful pets that then one day do something horrid. Wild animals are not pets, and long periods of peaceful activity still cannot deny their nature.

Or maybe it is that old fable often misattributed to Aesop of the scorpion and the frog. The story goes that the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river. The frog demurs, fearing he might get stung. The scorpion reassures him that he wouldn’t do this because if he did, they would both drown. Persuaded, the animal begins to carry the scorpion across the river, midway, the scorpion stings the animal who cries out: “Why did you do that, now we shall both die.” The scorpion replies, “I did it because it is my nature.”

Yet none of these stories really fit — for Wal-Mart is neither an elephant, a gorilla, nor a scorpion. It is a company managed by people, and those people make decisions every day.

In sustainability work, you read a great deal about Native Americans who we are told approached each decision with this question: What is the impact of my decision on the seventh generation of my people? That is where the popular brand of green cleaning products took its name.

Despite the claims of executives, we don’t think Wal-Mart has institutionally internalized the real meaning of sustainability.

This was a bulls eye hit on the Ballantine situation…good stuff.

— Darrel Fulmer
Owner
Sun Fresh International
Visalia, California

Darrel has seen a lot and so his opinion counts for a lot. We appreciate the note.

Very interesting reading. Ballantine won’t be alone due in part to the way Wal-Mart buys. Too many companies have most of their eggs in the Wal-Mart basket and won’t survive when Wal-Mart goes another direction.

— Don Johnston
Director of Sales and Marketing for the Melon Category
Chiquita Fresh North America
Cincinnati, Ohio

Yes, that is why great companies acquire great responsibilities. When they move, they crush people, places and things. Bruce Peterson used to try to restrict the percentage of business a company did with Wal-Mart, but barring auditing everyone’s books, it was a tough edict to enforce.

And, finally, from a Wal-Mart vendor who wishes to remain anonymous…

I would just like to say that your article on Wal-Mart was 100% right on. I work for a large WM vendor of fruit and veg, and I overheard many people commenting in our office on how well you nailed it. I genuinely feel for the growers and shippers that are getting driven out of business, while Wal-Mart thrives. Thank you.

We feel for individual companies as well, but we think there is a bigger issue that affects the kind of industry we are going to have.

What Wal-Mart is doing won’t stop many people from profiting while supplying Wal-Mart. What it does, though, is reward a certain type of intelligence and expertise; it gives the edge to the crafty and the shrewd. Not bad people, necessarily, but those who figure out how to work the system and be quick on their feet.

The good farmers, the great growers, those who don’t know how to work a special buy, the type who don’t submit cheap bids figuring that even if they don’t get the business they at least ruined things for their competitor…these salt-of-the-earth growers, who work day and night on producing a great product, do not deserve to be the losers. It doesn’t help the industry to develop systems that devalue their skills and place great value on craftiness.

We doubt Wal-Mart intended this or that the powers that be — mostly far distant from any farm — are aware of what the implications of their actions are. But that fact makes them no less real.

Many thanks to Bill, Darrel, Don and our vendor correspondent for their contributions.

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