Amid the dazzling array of industry events that marked April as an exceptional month in the chain drug retailing community, Tom Coughlin, the legendary Walmart executive who led the company through some of its most memorable years, passed away at the age of 67.
His funeral was held in Bentonville, Ark., a week before the 2016 NACDS Annual Meeting began in Palm Beach, Fla. From that standpoint, the event was ill timed, with many people who would have ordinarily attended the funeral occupied instead with plans to travel to Florida for the NACDS meeting. But much of the talk in Palm Beach was about Coughlin and the impact he exerted on the world’s largest retailer in a career there, originally intended to last just three years but stretched to over two decades.
In truth, though, talking about Tom Coughlin and the roles he played at Walmart could not possibly have sufficed to chronicle his career, one that helped alter the history of a retailer he was pivotal in transforming from a regional discounter to a company whose influence is today felt globally.
Coughlin originally joined Walmart in a loss-prevention capacity, having previously worked for a mass retailer in Cleveland, where he grew up. From there his rise was consistent, if not spectacularly fast. Ultimately, he emerged as one of two candidates to replace David Glass, when Glass retired from the company after completing a term as Walmart’s chief executive officer.
Coughlin did not get the CEO job, but was named vice chairman instead. It was an assignment uniquely suited to his considerable strengths in working with people, identifying their strengths, and drawing from them the best they had to offer.
At Coughlin’s funeral service, the church was packed with former and current Walmart associates, each, it seemed, with a story to tell about how the former vice chairman recognized the unique attributes each brought to Walmart and how Coughlin managed to utilize those attributes to maximize the individual’s talents — and improve the company’s performance.
The few speakers who addressed the funeral service spoke mostly about the individual, less about his various roles at Walmart. They talked about his compassion, his leadership skills, his ability to recognize in each individual those special skills that worked to enhance the retailer while benefitting the individual as well. They spoke as well of Coughlin’s humor, though those who knew him needed no reminders. Inevitably, many of the old stories resurfaced, stories which focused on Coughlin’s self-deprecating humor and his ability to laugh at his company — and at himself.
Quickly, the funeral and the day ended — and Bentonville returned to life as a bucolic community in northwest Arkansas known primarily, but no longer exclusively, as Walmart’s headquarters. But all of Bentonville’s residents with any connection to Walmart understood that the town had outgrown its former reputation as Walmart’s home and graduated to a role as one of the fastest-growing areas in the entire nation, a place that is now home to Crystal Bridges, one of the most respected museums in America, an attraction that now regularly draws visitors from around the country — and the world.
In truth, much time has passed since Coughlin retired — and his profile after retirement was diminished, in the sense that he stepped away from Walmart and other, younger people stepped in to take his place. But the question that must be asked is this one: Has Walmart replaced Coughlin in the sense that the company has moved on? The answer is no.
To the new generation of retailers, Coughlin may not be a familiar figure. That is in the nature of things. Yet to the people who knew him, who worked with him, who came to understand the unique blend of skills and talents and gifts that made him who he became, there is no forgetting him. He is inextricably bound with Walmart, the Walmart of another time, the company that redefined U.S. retailing and showed the retailing community that there are always new and better ways of doing things — and that all it takes is a leader to show the way and a man of compassion to allow others to follow.