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April 5, 2005, 11:18PM
 

Wal-Mart takes its case to media

Giant retailer gathers reporters for PR conference

By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO
Associated Press

ROGERS, ARK. - Wal-Mart is "good for America," and the barrage of criticism against the company is an effort to protect the status quo in retailing, President and Chief Executive Lee Scott said Tuesday in a sharp attack on community activists, organized labor and retail rivals.

Addressing about 50 journalists gathered this week at the company's conference, its first-ever media event, Scott defended its wages and health care plans, criticized by labor groups as inadequate, and said that the company is able to save customers money as it drives costs from its system.

"Innovation and competition tend to change the status quo," said Scott, speaking at a hotel in Rogers, a few miles from Wal-Mart Stores' Bentonville headquarters.

The two-day conference is part of a stepped-up public relations campaign begun last year to burnish Wal-Mart's image and counter views that the world's largest retailer and nation's biggest private employer skimps on wages and benefits while filling America's suburbs with boxy warehouses and acres of parking lots. On Tuesday, company spokeswoman Mona Williams urged reporters to clear their minds of previous articles about the company and "start with a clean slate."

Wal-Mart has a lot at stake. Company officials acknowledged that negative publicity has probably been a factor for its depressed stock price, and they say they will become more aggressive in disseminating their story about the company.

As part of the overall campaign to increase sales, Wal-Mart officials plan to improve the shopping experience. The company also wants to improve areas such as its diversity and has named Eduardo Castro-Wright, formerly CEO of Wal-Mart de Mexico, to be chief operating officer of the stores division and to help the diversity effort. The company also will be more aggressive about price cuts and public relations.

Wal-Mart has long been criticized by community leaders, religious groups and environmental activists, but recently it has had to face very public legal problems.

Some of Wal-Mart's most vocal critics aimed to use the media event to blast the company's wage and health care policies.

A group of community leaders from Inglewood, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb that rejected a Wal-Mart Supercenter a year ago, held a news conference earlier Tuesday at the hotel asking the company to sign what it calls a "community benefits agreement" that would guarantee good wages, affordable health care and protections for small businesses.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union also announced Tuesday that it planned a new Web site called wakeupwalmart.com as part of an invigorated campaign to make Wal-Mart offer what it considers more adequate wage and health care programs.

"There has to be a limit to greed when you talk about people's lives," said Paul Blank, director of the union's Wal-Mart campaign.

Scott said Wal-Mart's full-time workers get about $10 an hour, and of the 86 percent of employees with health insurance, about half get the coverage through Wal-Mart.

"Some well-meaning critics contend that Wal-Mart should be setting the pace for wages and benefits for the entire economy, just as a unionized GM was said to have done in the postwar period, helping usher in the great American middle class," Scott said. "The facts are that retailing does not perform that same function in the economy as GM does or did."

Reuters News Service and Bloomberg News contributed to this report

  April 6, 2005, 1:07AM

Vermont latest battleground on containing stores' growth

But city's vote favors Wal-Mart's bid for bigger unit

By DAVID GRAM
Associated Press

BENNINGTON, VT. - Mike Bethel likes downtown Bennington. With narrow streets lined with small shops and cafes squeezed into the ground floors of historic buildings, it's quintessential New England.

But he doesn't mind going out to the retail strip known as Northside Drive and shopping at the local Wal-Mart, either. In fact, he opposes an effort to limit the size of big-box retailers here.

"We can compete with big-box stores in downtown because they're apples and oranges," Bethel said. "We don't have the ambiance of Vermont out on the strip. You have the ambiance of Vermont downtown."

Plenty of others agreed, giving Wal-Mart a win Tuesday in a vote on whether to cap the size of big-box retailers to 75,000 square feet an attempt to halt an expansion of the local Wal-Mart store. The bylaw, enacted in December, was expected to produce a closer vote but the cap was rejected by a vote of 2,189-1,724. The victory for Wal-Mart, which wants to increase its Bennington store to 112,000 square feet, came after heavy advertising by the site's developer, Ohio-based Redstone Investments.

Ten years ago, the Arkansas-based retailer opened its first of what are now four Vermont stores. The vote in Bennington, a town of 16,000, was watched closely in Montpelier, where state lawmakers are considering a bill that would cap retailers at 50,000 square feet.

Bennington's debate may seem quaint in some parts of the country. In California, the question in several cities is whether to allow Wal-Mart Stores to build what it calls Supercenters at 200,000 square feet. That's more than four football fields of retail space.

But, in 1993, two years before the Bennington Wal-Mart opened, the National Trust For Historic Preservation put the entire state of Vermont on its list of the "10 most endangered places," proclaiming the state was endangered by a phenomenon it called "Sprawl-Mart."

Vermont made the list again last year when the National Trust said its "special magic" of historic villages and bucolic countryside faced "an invasion of behemoth stores that could destroy much of what makes Vermont Vermont."

Bruce Laumeister saw the photo-finishing business he founded more than two decades ago in Bennington grow to 26 stores in four New England states and then shrink to 15, mainly because of cut-rate competition from big-box retailers.

Eventually, he had to close what had been his biggest store, in Keene, N.H.

Wal-Mart has come under scrutiny around the country for its effects on everything from its labor practices to the health of other businesses in town and the traffic its stores generate. Last month, the company agreed to pay a record $11 million to settle federal allegations it used hundreds of illegal immigrants to clean the floors at its stores in 21 states.

Wal-Mart has had some success in California and elsewhere defeating local officials' efforts to limit its size by putting the issue to a referendum.

Meanwhile, in Vermont, people on both sides of the debate insist it's not just about Wal-Mart. "It's about the character of Bennington," Town Manager Stuart Hurd said.

Alicia Romac of the group "Citizens for a Greater Bennington" said a cap of 75,000 square feet could encourage a range of retailers to come to the area by ensuring that no single superstore moves in.

 

  Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

 

April 27, 2005, 9:18PM
 

WORKING

Truth usually comes out for bosses who abuse staff

By L.M. SIXEL

You don't have to know John Bolton personally to understand what a former State Department official meant when he called the U.N. nominee a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy."

Yes, not only is President Bush's pick as U.N. ambassador taking heat for his past criticisms of the United Nations, but political opponents are also attacking him for his management style.

Bosses like Bolton accept no responsibility, said Chip Galagaza, an employment lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Houston.

"They are puppy dogs to their supervisors and Attila the Huns to their subordinates," Galagaza said.

And someone else is always to blame, he added.

It's a fairly common management style, said Larry Stuart, an employment lawyer with Legge Farrow Kimmitt McGrath & Brown in Houston.

"They come up in some of our cases as key players," Stuart said.

It's typically someone who has a simultaneously high sense of self-worth but low self-esteem, he said. They have to prove to the employees below them that they're in charge but are self-effacing to the people above them because they believe that's how they get ahead.

So why do "kiss-up, kick-down" managers act like that? Does it work?

Not really.

They don't garner respect from their subordinates by putting them under their thumb, Galagaza said.

People see through it, he said. And if you lose the respect of your employees, you can't motivate them very well. It's not leadership.

And sooner or later, the truth comes out, Galagaza said.

Bolton, for example, is probably better known now across the country for his heavy-handed management style than anything he's done on foreign policy.

Jim Lefton, an international representative with United Steelworkers International Union in Houston, has seen his fair share of "kiss-up, kick-down" bosses. He says they don't usually make it to the top of the energy industry.

The guys who get to the top are not kiss-ups, he said. They didn't get there by sucking up but by putting their nose to the grindstone, working hard and doing what they're told to do.

The kiss-up variety typically make it to the midlevel and get exposed pretty quickly, he said.

Losing credibility

Lefton said he's seen them self-destruct during contract negotiations. They get tangled up in a web by telling each side what it wants to hear rather than what it needs to hear. But their word means little, and they end up isolating themselves.

"But they think they are the best thing since sliced bread," he said.

They don't get it.

Joe Bontke, outreach manager for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Houston, receives many complaints about bosses who are inappropriate in demeanor or attitude. Employees feel they have to walk on egg shells so as not to set off the bad behavior.

Unfortunately, Bontke said he has to tell them that it's not against the law to be a jerk.

And the behavior tends not to change, unless they get medicated, he said, laughing.

But eventually, a bully boss gets tripped up by someone who understands appropriate behavior and calls them on it.

Some of the bullying comes out in odd ways, said Bontke, recalling a complaint he heard recently at an Islamic mosque in Houston. It seems an employee didn't eat a piece of birthday cake at the office because he was fasting for religious reasons.

The supervisor was annoyed and said: "It's not a meal. It's a damn piece of cake."

So how are managers supposed to behave?

According to Wanda Dalton, executive vice president and chief human resources officer for Sterling Bank, it requires listening to employees and offering solutions.

Successful managers figured out that it works both ways, Dalton said.

Establish policies

An increasing number of companies have also established policies stating they will not tolerate abusive behavior at the workplace, said Norman Schippers, Houston managing director for the Capital H Group, a business consulting firm that deals with human resources issues.

The conduct codes, which are similar to policies against sexual harassment, should be discussed when employees are hired, said Schippers.

That can be done by providing specific examples of abusive behavior much like examples of harassment or a more general discussion of how to treat one another.

The rules should then be reinforced by quickly investigating complaints.

If companies don't do anything about abusive behavior, work suffers, the corporate culture turns negative, and good employees leave, Schippers said. And the victims may sue.

"The key is not to let it fester," he said.

People quit managers

A reputation for good workplace relationships is also an important recruiting tool, Schippers said. Recruiters get asked more often about how people get along at a company.

After all, employees quit their managers, not their companies.

So it pays to be nice to everyone. You never know who you'll be depending upon for a job reference or an ambassadorship one day.

lm.sixel@chron.com

 

 Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle