In defense of John Fleming

WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT Recently departed chief merchandising officer John Fleming will be remembered for a lot of things during his 10-year career at Walmart, but a champion of the retailer’s corporate culture isn’t one of them. That’s too bad.

(THE NEWS: Walmart chief merchant announces departure. For the full story, click here)

Reflecting back on the broad range of strategic initiatives implemented during the time Fleming ran the online division, marketing and then merchandising, the one thing you have to say about the guy is that he swam upstream and was willing to fail. Those two attributes should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Walmart corporate culture. Sam Walton swam upstream decades ago when he bucked industry trends to establish the Walmart business model, and by promoting a willingness to fail he inspired a culture of experimentation that kept Walmart on the leading edge when it came to serving consumers.

No one will ever confuse John Fleming for Sam Walton, but who at Walmart swam upstream more, experimented more or was an agent of change more than John Fleming? Things didn’t always work out, but they seldom do in retail. It is an inexact science that requires constant risk-taking and probing to achieve continued success. Sam Walton recognized that, and by establishing a culture that professed to celebrate failure, he effectively promoted the type of entrepreneurialism and risk-taking that is essential for growth.

“In the 10 years John has spent at Walmart he has built a strong team and been the architect of groundbreaking efforts to grow our e-commerce business, creative marketing programs to communicate with customers and inventive merchandising initiatives,” said Walmart U.S. president and CEO Bill Simon. “On a personal note, I’d like to thank John for his many contributions and for the direction he set for the company.”

Well put -- especially the part about inventive merchandising initiatives. Fleming wasn’t a beloved figure among the retailer's sizable and close-knit supplier community in Northwest Arkansas, and some of those inventive merchandising initiatives likely played a role in his decision to leave the company. Even so, Fleming should be hailed as something of a hero, especially by those who believe -- as we are told Sam did -- in the importance of swimming upstream and being willing to fail.

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