It's been vilified as a bad employer, but Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting is less about financial results and more about feting its employees. The world's largest retailer hosts a party in its home state of Arkansas that might surprise a few critics.



Held at the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the company plays host to roughly 16,000 attendees including associates, retirees, shareholders, executives, analysts and the media. This year Jamie Foxx served at the master of ceremonies and musical guests included Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban, Enrique Iglesias and American Idol winner Lee DeWyze. Executives extolled the wonders of Wal-Mart's international reach while associates from China, Japan and Mexico (among others) cheered them on.

It was a roof-raising, barn-burning, foot-stomping good time.

The meeting itself is a culmination of four days of events arranged strictly for Wal-Mart associates. REO Speedwagon, Tim McGraw and the Barenaked Ladies all played private concerts during the week, prior to the meeting. There are tours and parties and pep rallies galore. As a member of the media, I was treated to dinner and VIP seating for the main event, the nearly four-hour extravaganza that passes for a shareholding meeting followed by a press conference.

It was also a paid trip for the store associates selected to attend. Each year, the company allows half of its U.S. store base to send several attendees. All expenses are paid including airfare and housing at the University. Meals are taken care of and all associates are paid for their time away as though they were at work, including overtime. Crowded flights and volatile weather were causing flight cancellations and unexpectedly delayed many associates' trips home, and employees got paid time and a half for their trouble.

There was little sign of the disgruntled, abused Wal-Mart employee we've come to associate with the company. Not among the screaming, cheering and pumped-up crowd I witnessed. In fact, these folks were so revved up, they cheered -- the Sam's Club cheer in this instance -- all the way home. Enclosed in a tiny jet the equivalent of a tin can, they screamed their enthusiastic hearts out.

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