Walton, who still is referred to as Mr. Sam throughout the corporation, worked in a ground-floor office barely big enough for a conference table. The current occupant, Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr., is the keeper of Mr. Sam's vision. Like all Wal-Mart executives, he empties his own trash and shares budget hotel rooms when traveling. Everyone flies coach.
Wal-Mart's stinginess reaches from the executive suite to the loading dock.
Some truckers complain that they must unload their own cargo — or pay Wal-Mart to do it. Other big retail chains absorb that cost themselves. "They're awful," said independent driver George Hauschild of Palm Springs. "They don't even let you use the bathroom."
At every one of the 2,966 Wal-Marts in the U.S., thermostats are kept at a steady 73 degrees in summer, 70 degrees in winter; raising or lowering the temperature is considered a waste of money.
Such measures seem mild compared with what Wal-Mart has done to cut payroll costs. In one case, a jury in Oregon last year found that company managers had coerced hundreds of employees to work overtime without pay.
The managers were driven by intense pressure from Bentonville, witnesses said. Managers whose labor costs were considered too high were singled out during the company's weekly in-house satellite broadcasts. In response, managers tampered with electronic time cards or bullied employees to work off the clock, according to trial testimony.
The Oregon jury found last December that Wal-Mart's behavior was illegal and willful. A separate trial to determine damages for the 290 plaintiffs is set for early next year.
Wal-Mart settled similar overtime suits in Colorado and New Mexico for undisclosed amounts. More than 40 other cases are awaiting trial.
The company says it prohibits off-the-clock work and blames the problems on a small number of rogue managers.
Last month, Wal-Mart ran into trouble because of another cost-cutting practice: using dirt-cheap janitorial services.
A grand jury is investigating whether Wal-Mart knew that janitors provided by subcontractors were illegal immigrants cheated out of overtime pay. Federal agents raided 61 Wal-Marts across the country and seized boxes of documents from the Bentonville headquarters. Wal-Mart has denied wrongdoing.
Scott, the CEO, lauded Wal-Mart's employment record. Even in tight labor markets, he said, the company never has trouble finding workers.
"It is not forced labor," he said. "The truth is, I go to the stores and shake hands with the associates, and they like working at Wal-Mart."
On the Fast Track
Aaron Rios liked working at Wal-Mart so much that he decided to make his career there.
Like two-thirds of Wal-Mart's store managers, Rios started off as an hourly worker — in his case, stocking shoes on the graveyard shift at the Wal-Mart in his hometown of Hanford in the San Joaquin Valley.
After two years, Rios was recommended for management training — the company's fast track — leading him to quit community college and pursue a climb through the Wal-Mart ranks.
"There's just something about a Wal-Mart environment," said Rios, who became manager of the Serene Avenue Supercenter in Las Vegas at age 26. "It changed who I am, where I was going and what my career goals were."