Wal-Mart’s International Lessons

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It’s rare that a $100 billion business can be marginalized, but such is the case with the international arm of Wal-Mart Stores (WMT). As a stand-alone company, it would rank among the top five global retailers. Inside the $401 billion retail giant, though, the business has traditionally received short shrift. Its Bentonville (Ark.) headquarters is underwhelming—a drab, largely windowless, one-story structure named after Bill Mitchell, a former Walmart executive whom nobody seems to remember.

Since venturing into Mexico in 1991, Walmart International has grown haphazardly. During the 1990s the retailer exported its big-box, low-price model. While that strategy worked in North America, the results were so bad in Germany and Korea that Walmart withdrew from those countries in 2006. In response, Michael T. Duke, the former international chief and current CEO, gave local managers more autonomy while instituting more stringent financial goals for each region.

The results are mixed: International sales rose 11.5% in the second quarter (before the impact of exchange rate fluctuations), while U.S. sales barely budged. But over the past few years, operating profit margins have declined on the international side, which now has 3,805 stores operating under 53 distinct banners in 15 markets. As international chief C. Douglas McMillon says, Walmart is “progressing from being a domestic company with an international division to being a global company.”

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