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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

Success in business is totally about performing, but doing it in the right way... caring about people....

When one meets Michael Duke, CEO of the world's largest retailer, one is almost taken aback at the top-man's unassuming yet effective demeanor. Simply because, Duke is only the company's fourth CEO, and the first to have climbed the retail behemoth's ranks without ever personally working with Sam Walton, in more than half-century of the company's existence. He must possess something extra-ordinary that made him eligible for that high-profile job. While he may not have either the exuberance or the aura of the company's founder, Sam Walton, but Duke is considered by many --insiders as well as outside watchers-- as the right man to succeed the company's long-serving and ex-CEO, Lee Scott. Here's a brief peep into Michael Duke's not much known yet truly inspiring saga.

Early Days

Duke was born (December 1949) into a working-class family of a non-descript county, 8 miles outside Fayetteville, GA. Understandably, the humble family background did instill in the eldest child of the family, a sense of responsibility, hard-work, diligence, and of course, the ability to look beyond the ordinary. He had his schooling from the Fayetteville County High School before, ultimately, completing his majors in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech, Atlanta.

Along the way, Duke developed and nurtured a passion for sport. He played baseball and football at the Fayetteville County High School - where, during his senior year, he was the captain of the school's football team, and played in the position of a receiver / line-backer. In Duke's own words, more than the talent, it was the desire that drove him toward sport.

The same passion and desire were to manifest themselves in later years in his working life. The competitiveness with which he went into games -- which brought him two awards: one for sportsmanship and one for head-hunting, helped him become all the more competitive - a trait that any young bloke looking to make something out of his/her life would look to possess. But, what could have, perhaps, been a successful sporting career, was cut-short by Duke's self-realization that he neither had the size nor the talent to make it to a major college team. That besides, there were also the vagaries of life that made it imperative for the young man to acquire education and skills that can earn him a decent livelihood. So, he joined Georgia Tech to pursue industrial engineering.

The Spark

Duke was fortunate to have, in his high school physics teacher --one Mr. McDaniel, a friend, philosopher, guide, and a visionary. For, if Mr. McDaniel had not correctly predicted, back in 1967, that the services industry was going to be the future of America, and not advised Duke to go work in the services industry instead of manufacturing after majoring in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech - like all engineers did, then who knows what Duke would have been doing or where he'd be today. However, for posterity's sake, Mr. McDaniel, like all good teachers, did advise young Duke who, importantly, took it and put it to action.

Perfect Foil

Duke met Susan, his future-wife, when he was in Atlanta, pursuing engineering. They got married after a brief courtship and have been together ever since - even after 38 long years!! But, all wasn't hunky-dory for the young couple early in their married life. Duke was still at college in Atlanta and, making ends meet was a difficult proposition for the newly-married couple. So, Susan took-up a job at the Coca-Cola headquarters nearby, while Duke worked on a loading dock and delivered newspapers in the pre-dawn hours for The Atlanta Constitution. Come to think of it - today he is one of the top earning CEOs in the world (estimated to be around $18m per annum - salary & stock options), so all the hard-ships, efforts, and perseverance have paid off.

A Near-Perfect Career

While his first paying job was given by his father - taking care of his grandmother (for a dollar a day, he fetched her meals and kept her company), Duke's professional career began at Rich's Department Stores in Atlanta (in fact he worked for Richway, the discount department store of Rich's). Well seized of the power of the services industry, Duke worked for about 23 years with Rich's, Federated Department Stores (present-day Macy's), May Department Stores, and venture Stores - taking care of the logistics, distribution and administration divisions at each of those companies.

This long and extensive retail experience, especially his expertise with logistics, was what made Lee Scott, the then CEO of Wal-Mart, bring Duke on board.

How he got into logistics and retailing is also quite a fascinating story in itself. We've already recounted Duke's love for sport (above); he also had another penchant, almost a burning desire - that of getting to his destination that much quicker. Therefore, although, he was not a great motor-sport aficionado, he liked speed. And, it is this love for speed that got him into retailing, spurred on by the talk --about speed and competition-- given him by an interviewer at Rich's.

It all fitted well with his mind-set - getting there quicker and ahead of others. That's how it all began - a stint each with reasonably large retail companies, long-enough to fire him up for more and, in the process, enrich his capacity.

It is the same objectivity and meticulousness that got him to Wal-Mart in 1995, wherein he served as the Senior Vice President of Distribution of Wal-Mart Stores Division (USA) up to 1996. Then, from 1996 on up to 2000, he was Senior Vice President of Logistics (Wal-Mart Stores Inc.). His rise through the ranks was inevitable, based on his performance for the distribution and logistics division. Accordingly, he was made the Executive Vice President of Administration from (2000 to April, 2003) & that of Logistics (March 2000 to July 2000), before eventually being elevated to the post of Executive Vice President of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., (April 2003 to September 2005).

The fact that Duke was well and truly on his way up the ladder was evident when, in the same year (April 2003), he was also made the Chief Executive Officer and President of Wal-Mart Stores USA (Mart Stores Division) - no small achievement for this man from rural Georgia and, with less than modest beginnings.

To further stamp its approval for Duke's caliber as a leader, he was asked to assume responsibility as Chief Executive Officer and President of Wal-Mart International in October 2005. This allowed Duke to attain greater depth and range of experience in running both the international and domestic businesses, which he did with flying colors --the company opened nearly 8,000 retail units under 55 different banners in 15 countries. His approach was global expansion by focusing on markets with the greatest growth opportunities and pulling out of less profitable markets, as he did in Germany and South Korea. All this facilitated for the elevation of Duke to the top-position of the world's largest retail company. In 2009, he became its fourth CEO since its founding. Obviously, there was some unpublicized competition, but Duke's wealth of experience (of both international & domestic businesses) helped him prevail over any potential alternative.

Not only was Duke up for the challenges of taking forward a company built on values by its famous founder, but he also stood the test of times in the face of some adversities that had, apparently, cropped up because somewhere along its growth, the company probably had digressed from its values - those embedded in its fabric by Sam Walton.

So, what did Duke do to correct this? He put the right people in the right places; brought in some good merchants, promoted some good merchants. And, all of it has worked.

Likewise, he has drawn inspiration from the earlier CEOs and did his best to tackle the issues confronted by the company, which has grown to humungous proportions since it was founded. He went back to the basics - building stores at a fast rate, returning selection to shelves and pallets of goods to the aisles, emphasizing everyday low prices, and cutting costs.

Duke restructured the company, placing e-commerce on equal footing with Wal-Mart's other, much larger divisions, made serious investments in high-tech talent, and acquiring several startups.

Apart from that, he has also kick-started initiatives that emphasize on sustainability. Prime examples of the same being the local food program, called Heritage Agriculture, and the $2 million grant by the Wal-Mart Foundation to The Sustainability Consortium to assist its efforts in China, to help it build more sustainable and more competitive businesses. Many observers believe that he has done well at a company, the size of which warrants more than one leader.

Other Associations

Besides being on the board of directors of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. since 2008, Duke has served the board of directors of The Consumer Goods Forum, the executive committee of Business Roundtable. He is also is on the executive board of the Conservation International's Center for Environment Leadership in Business. He also serves on the board of advisors for the University of Arkansas and the advisory board of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. Duke also serves on the board of directors for the Retail Industry Leaders Association and Arvest Bank's community advisory board.

Family

Mike and his wife, Susan, have two daughters and a son, and five grand-children.

Accolades

Michael Duke consistently figures among the most admired CEOs of the world. Not only that, he is also considered to be one of the most influential CEOs.

Quotes
@"I'd want Sam Walton to be proud. I came here because of the culture of the company and what we stand for ... the basic beliefs and values of our company. Do we serve more customers? Do we help out around the world with people living better? Do we make a difference in issues like sustainability and health care?"
@"I would never speed, but I enjoy getting there quicker than I would otherwise."
@"We have to improve the shopping experience for the female customer because she represents over 70 percent of our business. We also have to play offense. We have to play to win and become aggressive with expense reduction."
@"We have to reflect on our shortcomings. We have to be self-critical and think about how we raise the bar."
@"If we look back on our success over the past 50 years and ask the simple question: ‘Why Wal-Mart and not another retailer?' I believe there's a simple answer. It's the culture, the beliefs, and it's the enduring values that live within us and are expressed through our actions every day."
@"The values that built Wal-Mart, defined Wal-Mart and sustained Wal-Mart for the past 50 years will drive our success and make us proud for the next 50 years."
@"You can be both caring and performance-driven. Success in business is totally about performing, but doing it in the right way -- caring about people."
@"The engineer in me likes data. I like research. I like metrics. More than anything I love an elegant process for arriving at innovative solutions that are both profitable and sustainable."
Hope viewer's caught up spark...
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