Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said he was reluctant to hit send on an email inviting CEOs from top global companies to attend the retailer’s Sustainable Product Expo because he knows how busy everyone is. However, when an email from the top executive from the world’s largest company offers an opportunity to “be part of what’s next,” it’s not surprising so many CEOs found time to visit Northwest Arkansas this week.
Plenty of other people did as well. When the three-day event kicked off Tuesday, April 28 an estimated 2,200 people strained the capacity of the main ballroom at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers, Ark., to the point where overflow rooms at the adjacent Embassy Suites hotel were set up with video monitors to accommodate an additional 300 attendees.
The sea of humanity was not lost on McMillon, no stranger to speaking in front of large crowds, who quipped, “There are a lot of people here,” as he began to address the gathering. He went on to recap Walmart’s sustainability journey, the shift in thought process that took place at the company and some of the progress made to date. Yet this was no chest-thumping exercise on Walmart’s part — although the company can point to some significant accomplishments in a relatively short period of time — the message McMillon and other Walmart executives who participated sought to deliver was about the road ahead. That explains the “be part of what’s next” positioning of the event and the involvement of so many top executives because Walmart sought to make clear it is on a journey that is still in its early days.
“When we get this right it is something we can talk to our grandkids about, which is the most important conversation any of us will ever have,” McMillon said.
Getting “this” right is something Walmart has made clear from the beginning of its journey would involve commitments from its trading partners, which leads back to the point about why so many top executives participated in the event. The kick off session employed an unconventional format for a business meeting with McMillon serving as a moderator as he was joined on stage by different groupings of CEOs.
First it was Monsanto chairman and CEO Hugh Grant, Cargill executive chairman Greg Page and Rick Smith, president and CEO of Dairy Farmers of America. Next up were Ken Powell, chairman and CEO of General Mills, John Bryant, president and CEO of Kellogg, Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo and Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Company. They were followed by a group that included Rob Gehring, global account leader, The Coca-Cola Company, Kees Kruythoff, president, North America for Unilever; A.G. Lafley, chairman, president, and CEO, Procter & Gamble, Roberto Marques, company group chairman, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Family of Companies, North America.
As part of each panel discussion the executives talked about their respective sustainability commitments before things took a surreal turn and Walmart conducted a commitment signing ceremony reminiscent of a presidential document signing from the White House Rose Garden.
One by one, McMillon included, the panel participants took turns signing their respective commitment document on a table that had been quickly hoisted on the stage before each group posed for a photo. While the specifics of each document were different, all those who signed on behalf of their company were fundamentally agreeing, along with Walmart, to be part of what’s next.