As both a free-market conservative and a vocal supporter of small, local businesses, there comes a time when grey areas emerge. One of those grey areas is a little bitty company by the name of Wal-Mart. I think it’s high time that we get the discussion started about big, faceless companies like the aforementioned Wal-Mart, and figure out where they fit in with the America we are working to build.
Now I’m all for encouraging business success. I’m all for corporations, because I know that forming a corporation is a really big, great indicator of a company that’s doing well. However, I think the way corporations are being operated in this day and age represents a schism between the producer and the consumer that is both practical and emotional.
If you’ll excuse my divergence for but a moment, I’d like to tell a story.
I was at lunch last week with a friend, the leader of the young adult’s group at my church. I wasn’t a member of the group at that time, and the purpose of the meeting was to get a feel for what we both were looking for, and see if the group would be a good fit. It turned out that it was. During the meeting, my friend began to talk about his logic for organizing our group. He told me that the group was in the process of splitting into two different chapters because, together, they were too large to be effective. He told me that he considered being the leader of both chapters, and all the chapters that formed from those two in the future, essentially being the overall leader of this large community. However, my friend did not take this approach.
Instead, he decided that he would continue leading only the first group. A new leader would be elected for the second group, and when newer groups formed off these previous ones, new leaders would be elected for them as well. He provided a visual of these chapters being organized in two different ways. The first way was as a pyramid, the second, a line. If the shape was a pyramid, newer chapters would be lower than the older ones; there would be a hierarchy, with everyone answering up to my friend. Yet this wouldn’t be effective, because it went against human nature, and the belief that all men are equal.
My friend realized his place, and realized that putting himself at the very top would be impractical and wrong. The whole point is efficiency; in the case of our youth group, efficiency of interaction. The point is to relate with one another. Someone in some chapter far down in the pyramid is far more likely to confide in the leader of their chapter, as opposed to the leader of the whole community. My friend realized that, in this situation, there really wasn’t a need for a person at the very top. He also realized that it wouldn’t be right to have a person at the very top, because in the nature of a pyramid, the highest point captures the attention and glory. It would also make everyone else dependent on my friend, which he didn’t want. He wanted the community to be interdependent: able to operate independently, but also work together to achieve a greater purpose.
Instead of the pyramid, my friend proposed the image of a flat line. Every chapter would have members and a leader. Every chapter would be self-sufficient, close-knit, and effective. No one group would be of higher standing than another. Instead of having a leader presiding over the whole community, my friend realized that no man should rule over other men, and we shouldn’t be accountable to one person. We should be accountable to God. A flat line of chapters, of communities, all answering up to God. This is how a business, a corporation, a government, and any other system, can operate successfully. The best part, my friend explained, is that such a structure isn’t a theoretical idea. It has existed before and thrived before, as evidenced in the Book of Acts within the Bible, which discusses the very successful structure of the early church.
How do we know the structure was successful? Because Christianity, which started off with a handful of followers, now has 2.18 billion followers worldwide. I would call that success.
“Okay, so what?” You might ask. “How can the early Christian church affect how Wal-Mart is operated?”
My answer to you is that there are two main reasons for the discontent with corporations like Wal-Mart. The first is structure. The second is motivation.
If we take a look at Wal-Mart as a whole (or really any corporation as a whole) we realize that there is an undeniably pyramidal structure. There are employees in the stores, managers, regional managers, COOs and CFOs and CEOs; the owner and the shareholders. The current perception of these organizations is that the people higher up are “more important” and the people lower down are “less important.” Now usually, when somebody makes the argument that I’m making, it leads to a cry for the disbandment of corporations, or some kind of “trust buster,” or an increase in government business regulation. I don’t believe that any of these things are appropriate or necessary.
Yet I’m not denying that there’s a problem. When you really look at a business, it’s clear that all the parts are essential to its operation. Wal-Mart would be nowhere without salesmen and women. It would be nowhere without accountants. Nowhere without managers, without CFOs, without owners and stockholders and investors with money. Because all of these people are essential to a business’ success, no one person is more important than another. A corporation owner with no employees doesn’t have much of a corporation.
The first fix Wal-Mart and businesses like it need to make is a structural one. I’m not talking about pay, here, but instead about accountability. Every Wal-Mart should be run akin to a small business or a franchise. A CEO across the country can’t effectively deal with the individual needs of each community, neither should he be expected to. Similarly, a salesman in Oklahoma can’t coordinate a national marketing campaign, neither should he be expected to. It should be the regional managers and the managers and the employees who need to take a good look at the community around them and adjust their procedure accordingly. The executives should deal with the overall scheme of things, stop trying to micromanage the individual stores, and realize with humility that it is not their role. Instead of being an island of commercialism in a sea of small town values, Wal-Mart needs to gain some humility and realize that it is a service establishment. Its entire purpose is to serve others. That mission statement should be felt from the shipping centers to the cash register to the corner office. Service.
But, of course, a service mentality is related to our second issue: motivation.
Too often is the case that, when tempted by the glittering wrath of money, businesses fall astray and make the acquisition of wealth their primary goal. It ceases to be about providing a service and instead becomes all about success; this usually happens after the original founder passes away, the company grows too large, and the mission statement is not properly communicated to the successors, or worse, is ignored entirely. Again, I want to clarify, this isn’t an anti-capitalist statement. The entire reason we have business illustrates a capitalist system. Business is necessary to stimulate a free market system, and business is profitable because people are willing to pay for what they need. It’s a great, effective system that encourages freedom and merit.
It’s also the reality of the situation that money is important. We need money to survive and make ends meet in this world. If it was all about providing the service, all businesses would be non-profit (and many can afford to be, God bless them), but people need to pay the bills. That’s not bad, that’s not wrong; it’s reality. But acquiring money isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the endgame when starting a business. Businesses are meant to enrich a community. They’re meant to provide the goods and services that people need to succeed, and in turn the merchant succeeds because people need and purchase their goods. That’s called business, and it’s a win/win situation.
Unfortunately, a lot of corporations, because they’re so huge, forget the “need” and “people” parts and only focus on the “purchase.” Because they’re out of touch with the communities, they only see profits as numbers. That’s why you see corporate ad campaigns trying to be “cutting edge” are usually a good three months behind the curve. That’s why corporations are often ham-handed and inconsiderate. It’s because the people making the decisions rarely see the people affected by them. In a hard economy, business has become a scattered attempt to stay afloat by whatever means necessary.
I don’t go into Wal-Mart if I can help it. I don’t like the harsh fluorescent lights. I don’t like the vibe the store puts off. I don’t like how inhospitable it seems and I don’t like the ultra-cheap products. The whole place feels wrong, somehow, like underneath there’s some kind of injustice being done. That injustice, I believe, is that Wal-Mart doesn’t care about people. Not really. Not truly, I don’t believe. And people can tell.
If Wal-Mart dropped the decision making from the high-ups to the managers and employees; if they allowed the people interacting with the customers on a daily basis to meet those customers’ needs, Wal-Mart could become something different. Pricing wouldn’t be fixed to undercut the competition. Service would become the most important factor once again. You could walk into a Wal-Mart and you wouldn’t be creeped out by the angry old wash-out in the blue vest, glaring at you. A business doesn’t need a national coordinator to decide what a company does day to day. Their employees and managers aren’t idiots, it’s not hard to figure out what’s polite and helpful and what’s absolutely not. If CEO’s put a little more faith and responsibility into their employees, imparted the mission statement from top to bottom; a mission of service; and if Wal-Mart became a community business instead of just a corporation, we could see real change.
Wal-Mart is really a microcosm for the dying breed of American logic that was formed as the size of our world grew exponentially. Like my friend and the leader of my youth group, we were faced with two paths. To have a pyramid system, or to have a flat line. Unlike my friend, most if not all businesses have chosen the pyramid, because that’s how a small business seems to start out. The owner and the employees. But what these big corporation owners don’t realize is that it was never like that. We are all interdependent. We all need the other to truly succeed, and each person is important. The owner needs the employees as much as the employees need a business with an owner. The idea of the pyramid falls flat. It’s gotten too high and too lofty and it’s crumpling under it’s own weight.
Instead, businesses need to embrace the image of the flat line. Each store indepedent, but interdependent within the whole company. Each store can meet the needs of the community, while maintaining the goal of the company as a whole. All the while, these businesses need to reflect the structure and motivation of the first church, and of the United States of America. E Pluribus Unum. Of Many, One. An interdependent community. A flat line committed to serving the will of God as it’s said in the Bible: to serve our fellow man.
Because while the pyramid may be one of the strongest man-made structures, flat ground can hold all the weight in the world.