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According to Fortune magazine, in 2008 Carlos Selim Helu of Mexico had overtaken Bill Gates as the world's richest man with a net worth approaching $70 billion. But if Sam Walton were alive today -- he died in 1992 -- it would be no contest. He would stand a head above both Helu and Gates with a net worth well into the $80 billion range. He set up five trusts, each currently worth more than $16 billion.
Walton made his fortune by being unconventional. He built huge discount stores in rural areas instead of big cities, and offered the lowest-priced merchandise to customers. By converting thin margins into great bargains for shoppers, he brought an enormous volume of business to his operations.
Happy shoppers and high volume resulted in explosive growth and a giant enterprise, Wal-Mart Stores, with more than 6,750 centers worldwide and generating $93 billion in revenue -- in just three months!
Wal-Mart's success has not been without controversy. Although it now employs more than 1.9 million "associates," many part-time, more than a credible record of creating jobs, there is hostility between the company and unions. But the greatest criticism arises from its very success: low prices brought a flood of shoppers to Wal-Mart centers. In rural areas, family-run stores couldn't compete and perished. Their cost of goods sold was higher than the prices at which Wal-Mart sold the same merchandise to the public.
Walton focused on rural areas where prices were traditionally higher than in cities. This disparity in prices made it possible for Sears, Roebuck to become a giant catalog merchandiser by offering farmers and others living in small hamlets products at the same prices prevailing in the cities.
Walton was born on a farm in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, in 1918 and attended public school. When he was 13 he became an Eagle Scout, and after moving to Columbia, Mo., enrolled at Hickman High School, where he played football and baseball -- each team was a state champion. He wasn't a gifted athlete, but ascribed his success to being "totally competitive."