Wal-Mart (WMT) has been the focus of considerable protest this year as Occupy Wall Streeters filled locations across the nation to encourage shopper to head to mom and pop stores. Accusations of low wages and shoddy benefits were written out on signs as other lamented that the six founders of the store are richer than the nation’s entire bottom 30 percent.
What some don’t realize; however, is that Wal-Mart was once just a mom and pop operation based out of Newport, Arkansas. Founded by Sam Walton in the 1940s on principle of getting better deals from wholesalers and passing on the bargains to the customers, Wal-Mart’s competitive pricing helped it gain local popularity. Prior to Walton, store owners would typically be the ones to benefit from a price differential from the wholesaler. Wal-Mart was able to beat out all its competitors, a concept that remains the cornerstone of the company’s empire. By the 1980’s Wal-Mart could hardly be considered a mom and pop operation with hundreds of stores across the country and Sam Walton ranked the richest man in the U.S.
Another major founding concept of Walton’s original stores that carries into today, much to the chagrin of protestors, is the commitment to a low payroll. The company’s history is steeped in the insistence that the fewest people possible be hired for the lowest legal wage in order to maintain price margins. Today, being a corporate behemoth with thousands of employees, it’s difficult for Wal-Mart to continue to frame tight wages with a better life and more available good for the struggling American.
Wal-Mart is just one of many companies whose huge presence today overshadows its modest beginnings.
Another example is Wrigley. The Chicago-based company got its start in 1911 after being founded by William Wrigley Junior. Back then, the company was not selling the gum it is so well known for. Wrigley, which today sells its products in more than 180 countries world-wide, began its journey selling items like soap and baking powder before moving into confections. The founder would give his buyers a pack of gum with their toiletry and after receiving rave reviews, the transition was made into confections. Today, Wrigley has joined Mars Incorporated and generates revenues upwards of $30 million
Mom and Pop success stories aren’t limited to the early 20th century. The popular organic product brand Burt’s Bees was founded in 1984 by Burt Shavitz and Roxanne Quimby out of an unassuming candle company in Maine. Using the left over beeswax from Shavitz’s honey business in order to make candles in a rented school house, Quimby began to develop the well-loved personal care products that today can be found anywhere from Barnes and Noble to Whole Foods. Seven years later in 1991, Burt’s Bees became incorporated and began to sell its soaps and lip balms in larger quantities. In 2007, Burt’s Bees was purchased by Clorox (CLX) for a reported amount of $925 million.
An additional example that happens to be a big fan of Burt’s Products also got its start as a mom and pop shop; Whole Foods Market (WFM), the leading organic grocer in the country, was started in 1978 by John Mackey and Rene Lawson Hardy. Originally titled Safer Way Natural Foods when it first opened in Austin, Texas, the little shop represented the beginning of an empire. After some time operating the independent shop, the couple joined forces with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, owners of Clarksville Natural Grocery. The union proved successful quickly following the opening of the original Whole Foods Market in 1980. For the last 30-plus years the stores, now all across the country, have continued to gain popularity alongside a stronger focus on natural foods. Still the company hasn’t forgotten its humble beginnings and while it may charge a premium for its organic starfruit and cereals, it seems to be paying it forward to its employees. Whole Foods has been named among the best 100 Companies to Work for in America.
Another example of a company that has fought its way up from a tiny operation into a corporate leader is Mattel (MAT). In 1945, Ruth and Elliot Handler joined forces with Harold Matson to begin what would later become the biggest and most profitable toy company in the world. The future creators of Barbie began their journey to toy dominance in a garage in Southern California where they created and sold picture frames. Their focus soon changed though; however, as Elliot’s dollhouse furniture proved a bigger seller than the frames. With time-honored toys like the Barbie and Ken dolls developed in 1959 and a strong advertising presence, the company has maintained its dominance through the decades.