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Unstoppable

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Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in his office at the Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters.  

Virtually overnight, a noisy and adamant coalition sprang to life, intent on blocking Wal-Mart’s debut. Corner stores, green activists, neighborhood groups, and labor unions (especially the unions) threatened to lobby against Vornado’s land-use application. Soon enough, Democrats around the city, including mayoral candidates Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner, clambered aboard the bandwagon. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose initial comments about Wal-Mart’s impending arrival were vaguely positive (“The public votes with their feet”), suddenly began to backtrack. As Pat Purcell, organizing director of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500, put it later, “What politician is going to be the one to let Wal-Mart in in an election year?”

Vornado rendered the question moot at the end of February. Reeling from the backlash and apparently fearful that it jeopardized the entire project—which included an array of other stores and a pair of apartment towers—the developer informed the City Council’s Land Use Committee that Wal-Mart was no longer in the cards for Rego Park.

For the anti–Wal-Mart coalition, the victory was sweet but fleeting. Within days came word that the company was eyeing two sites on Staten Island. Since then, the coalition has been marshaling its forces, aggressively pushing the City Council to pass measures designed, in effect, to bar Wal-Mart from New York for good, and denouncing the retailer in terms as vivid as they are cartoonish. “Wal-Mart is like the Death Star,” says Richard Lipsky, the head of the Neighborhood Retail Alliance. “You can wipe them out, but they’ll be back.”

Lee Scott would never be Central Casting’s choice to play the role of Darth Vader. A 56-year-old native of Joplin, Missouri, who grew up in Baxter Springs, Kansas (population 4,602), he has short brown hair and an affect that’s a mash-up of Andy Griffith and Mr. Rogers. On the day we meet, he wears wool pants, a leather jacket, and a yellow polo shirt buttoned up to his Adam’s apple. His office décor screams mid-seventies suburban rumpus room: There’s a fish tank, wood paneling, low-pile carpet, and a view of the parking lot. A stack of books is piled high on his desk, with Jared Diamond’s Collapse on top, just above The Wal-Mart Way.

Scott has spent 26 years at Wal-Mart, rising through the ranks to become its third CEO. The first, Sam Walton, earned his legendary status by helping invent the concept of big-box discount retailing. The second, David Glass, turned Wal-Mart into a paragon of high-tech efficiency. Scott, who took the reins in January 2000, tells me that he sees himself as a “transitional” figure in the company’s history. It’s fallen to him to manage Wal-Mart’s shift from provincial rising star to global behemoth—and magnet for controversy. In his willingness to open up the company (a bit) and answer its critics (however haltingly), he seems intent on styling himself as Wal-Mart’s Gorbachev.

Scott’s idea of glasnost begins with an acknowledgment that all those critics aren’t congenitally “evil.” Some, Scott says, are sincerely trying to make the company better, while others are pining for a sepia-toned America that is inexorably slipping away. “There are people who care about sprawl and envision a life that’s more like where I grew up,” he says. “A life where people park and walk down Main Street and shop store to store to store. I actually have respect for those people. I think their intentions are good. But they have a view of life which I don’t think is coming back. And I don’t think society should protect that view of life.”

What Scott can’t abide is a different brand of critic—the kind he sees as the source of Wal-Mart’s troubles in New York. “We don’t like it when people are calling in their chits and are willing to vote against what we see as customers who need us,” he says. “And while you don’t in any way want to be dismissive of people’s arguments, it’s hard for us to look at New York and have someone say they’re against big boxes. It would appear that it’s somewhat late for that.

“So let’s talk about what the real issues are and stop masking them with ‘our interest is only the good of mankind’ bull crud,” he adds. “It doesn’t have anything to do with wages. It doesn’t have anything to do with the box. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything other than fear: ‘How are we going to compete? How are we going to protect the status quo?’ ”

Scott is referring here mainly to unions—another thing he can’t abide. To his way of thinking, it’s not organized labor but Wal-Mart, with its “everyday low prices,” that’s the true friend of the workingman. “People here in Arkansas think of New York as all Wall Street traders making big money and living big lives,” he says. “They miss the whole issue that New York is made up of millions of working people who live paycheck to paycheck, and that saving 10 percent on their daily needs allows them to go to the movies, to go out to eat, to do things differently than they would otherwise have done. When you take an area like New York City and decide you’re only going to allow so much competition, that you’re going to set a limit and not participate in the things that make this country great—well, by golly, I think that’s a huge decision for those working people.”


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