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Wal-Mart Outs Itself: Profits before People

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Fortune Magazine reports that Wal-Mart hit the top of the revenue charts again in 2010 beating out the big boys like Exxon Mobil in insatiable profits. Also in the list of top revenue producers are eight bailed out companies: General Electric (3), Bank of America (7), J.P. Morgan Chase (9), Citigroup (12), General Motors (15), AIG (16), Wells Fargo (19), Freddie Mac (54).

AIG, made the list? Freddie Mac? Citigroup? GM? Aren't these more like Misfortune 500 companies?

Question: How can you be completely mismanaged, virtually insolvent and held up by taxpayer billions and still make the Fortune 500 list? That is the Trillion Dollar question.

Answer: What constitutes a "great company" for Fortune Magazine is entirely based on numbers, however creative those numbers may be. The 500 List doesn't consider how many employees lost their jobs, how many worker benefits were cut, how many millions of American families were rendered homeless, and how many of America's 15 million unemployed and 15 million under-employed lost their medical insurance and ability to feed their families due to the distorted and singular pursuit of revenues by Fortune's "Best."

The top dog position this year falls to discount king Wal-Mart. Fortune asks the question:
"Is Wal-Mart Stores a great company, or what?"

How exactly does Fortune Magazine define "great?"

2010 Fortune 500: Wal-Mart back on top

"The mega-retailer knocked Exxon Mobil out of the top slot to rule the Fortune 500 again this year. Wal-Mart managed to lift revenues, on top of a big increase in 2008, by attracting bargain-hungry customers from competitors with remodeled stores and inexpensive private-label goods, offering everything from frozen pizza to patio furniture in one stop. A single trip also meant less spending on gas. Result: Profits surged a whopping 7% to $14.3 billion."

Wow, that sure is a lot of frozen pizza. So what is the secret to Wal-Mart's success? Maybe we can learn something about being "great" from Wal-Mart's example.

In recent years Wal-Mart has gone green, not with envy but with sustainable business practices at least that is what we are told.

Naturally wherever the retail giant can save money by cutting back on energy usage and recycling goods would make perfect sense for Fortune's Number One. But making Wal-Mart the poster child for environmentally sustainable practices would be a big pill to swallow for most of us. (Didn't we already do that with BP?)

As for integrity some of us cannot forget Wal-Mart deliberately mislabeling foods as "organic" only three years ago. Nor can we forget the internal memo released by top management to encourage high employee turnover and "dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart" to save on healthcare benefits and wages.

But people change and so do companies. Perhaps the "Top Company in America" is a role model for us after all. So just what is the Greenest of Green discount retailers doing today?

Wal-Mart Stores, the $14.3bn revenue producer, is flexing its big legal muscles to fight a $7,000 fine issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to protect the safety of a minimum wage worker who was trampled to death in November 2008. Wal-Mart, who agreed to a settlement with the Nassau County District Attorney to avoid criminal charges, does not feel the fine is fair. Why is it unfair? Because "crowd trampling" is not an occupational hazard that retailers must actively prevent says the big WM.

Excuse me Wal-Mart...an occupational hazard would be any danger on the job. Two thousand people queued up in front of a store sign that said, "Blitz Line Starts Here" and a 34-year old temporary worker was stomped to death in the rushing surge for a $300 laptop. It seems safe to conclude from this event that crowd danger is an occupational hazard.

This incident reveals a lot about the 2,000 Wal-Mart customers who were clearly more interested in a bargain than respecting human life. The case also reveals a lot about Wal-Mart's business practices. Birds of a feather you know...

Wal-Mart believes that paying the small sum of $7000 would set a precedent to make them legally responsible to safeguard workers against errant crowds. And they don't want to be responsible for that--legally or otherwise.

To make their position clear, Wal-Mart has filed 20 motions, 400 pages of legal briefs, and spent 2 million dollars in legal fees. The case is costing taxpayers millions too by demanding nearly 5,000 hours from OSHA legal eagles. In the NY office, 17% percent of attorney hours are taken up with defending the negligence fine levied against Wal-Mart.

OSHA states that Wal-Mart failed to protect employees from "recognized hazards" and to prevent situations that were "likely to cause death or serious harm" due to "crowd surge or crowd trampling."

Wal-Mart's official response: "We are committed to learning from the incident and making our stores even safer for customers and our associates."

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Monika Mitchell is the Chief Executive Officer of Good-b (Good Business International)a leading new media company xcelerating the movement for better business for a better world.
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