Walmart US CEO John Furner: How he leads the nation’s largest private employer

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Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner made a name for himself in an industry often characterized by rapid change and relentless competition, rising from an hourly associate in Arkansas to becoming a member of the company’s C-suite over four decades later. 

Furner, who took over the U.S. division of Walmart in November 2019, realizes he doesn’t have all the answers.

A pillar of his leadership involves creating a network of people he can listen to for advice, especially during difficult times. 

To stay ahead in today’s economic environment in which retailers are battling persisting inflation, geopolitical tensions and retail theft, Furner says its vital for companies to listen to signals, signs and voices around the world, “including the ones that are challenging you.”

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“There’s so many different versions of the way to think through complex problems that you really need to have an open network,” he said. “There are times that we can solve problems internally.”

But there are just as many times when you “have to listen externally. … A lot of times in the morning, in the evening, I’m listening to what’s going on externally and just trying to keep perspective.” 

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In many cases, that may mean visiting locations and speaking to associates among a workforce of 1.5 million across more than 4,700 stores to understand what problems they are facing. Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer.

“You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about. You can’t solve a problem that’s a secret. And they really are the ones that can tell you what’s happening in the world in real time,” Furner added. 

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That approach, he noted, was particularly crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he has always been dedicated to helping Walmart associates, especially given how much they helped him in the early days of his career. Shortly after he started with the company, when he was only 14 years old, a group of associates who he barely knew raised $37,000 for his family after his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. 

Throughout his career, Furner also learned that understanding your weaknesses and knowing when to look to others for help underpins a good leader. 

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“It’s important to recognize who you are and what you bring in the environment. And that cannot be everything,” he said. “A lot of situations come up that I’m calling someone on my team or asking who they know in the world that has thought through the type of situation we’re facing and go get help and advice.”

John Furner Walmart US CEO

Though the chief executive believes it takes a team to run Walmart U.S., whose net sales reached $420.6 billion for fiscal 2023, Furner credits his personal life — from working on his grandfather’s Arkansas farm to learning how to play the guitar — for shaping his business acumen. 

As a teenage guitarist, Furner says, he developed listening skills and an understanding of how to think more strategically. 

“To be able to listen to a song and then play it without music was another challenge I learned,” he said. “In some ways, it helps in business because it’s pattern recognition. And you can see things going on in the world and tie them back together.” 

According to Furner, it came in handy throughout his career when he got his first summer internship working for Walmart in Mexico as a teenager and when he was appointed as the head of marketing and merchandising for Walmart China based in Shenzhen.

Working on his grandfather’s farm in Arkansas also taught him the importance of hard work and how to find solutions to problems with little means. 

“I learned with him that the animals don’t take Sundays and Saturdays and Wednesdays off. They’re always up,” he said. “You get up early in the morning, you go drive the fence line to make sure that a cow hasn’t pushed his way through. In the afternoon, you pulled things out of the garden, and then you drove into town. … He sold watermelons and cantaloupes and everything you can imagine.” 

When they needed something on the farm, his grandfather wouldn’t buy anything, Furner recalled.

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“You just went to the shed and figured out how to piece things together and solve the problem without spending money,” he said.

It’s similar to business because “there are so many unique situations that just land on you that there may not be a clear answer. But between your team, your resources, American ingenuity and creativity, there’s probably a way to solve it,” Furner said.

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