Ouachita Baptist University recently hosted Donald Soderquist, former chief operating officer of Wal-Mart and “keeper of the culture” as part of the university’s Birkett Williams Lecture Series. Soderquist’s lecture highlighted the importance of being a difference maker in the professional setting.
Soderquist, a longtime friend of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, joined Wal-Mart in 1980 as executive vice president. During his 20-plus years there, Soderquist served in several executive positions, including senior vice chairman and chief operating officer. Soderquist led the company during a time of immense growth. Under his leadership, Wal-Mart expanded from being the largest retailer in the world, with sales of $44 billion in 1992, to the largest company in the world, with annual sales over $200 billion.
Bryan McKinney, dean of OBU’s Hickingbotham School of Business, was instrumental in bringing Soderquist to campus. “We were looking for a leader in the field of business who was a dynamic communicator,” he said. “Mr. Soderquist is a perfect fit.
“I really appreciate Dr. Horne’s focus on ‘difference makers,’” McKinney added, “and I think for all of us to become difference maker, it’s helpful to interact with people who have made a meaningful impact on the world.”
Soderquist explained that anyone has the ability to be a difference maker, a favorite saying of OBU President Rex Horne, noting that “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your grades turned out to be. … There’s more potential out there than we think.
“Few will deny that we live in a day of rapid change,” Soderquist added. With advances in the fields of healthcare, technology and travel, it’s easier than ever to do something good for civilization, he said.
Soderquist also stressed the importance of community, of a group of people coming together for a common goal. “Life is not like an organizational chart, it’s like a cobweb with lots of points of intersection. … Together we can make a difference; that’s what God’s called us to do.”
After Walton died in 1992, many observers believed that Wal-Mart would cease to thrive, but it continued to grow “because a culture had developed and been cultivated,” Soderquist said.
Soderquist concluded his lecture with a list of uncommon truths, things that are often overlooked:
In 1998, John Brown University named the Soderquist Center for Business Leadership and Ethics after him. He serves as the founding executive and gives inspiration and direction to the center team. He also has received three honorary degrees and written two books, The Wal-Mart Way and Live, Learn, Lead.
Since retiring in 2000, Soderquist has had the opportunity to speak at numerous events, has been active with nonprofit organizations in Arkansas and, in 2011, was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. His passion now is to teach the servant leadership philosophies and principles that he learned while at Wal-Mart to organizations around the world.
Ouachita’s Birkett Williams lecture series was established in 1977 through a gift from the late Birkett L. Williams, a 1910 Ouachita graduate. His generous endowment established the lectures as an opportunity to extend the concepts of a liberal arts education beyond the classroom by bringing outstanding scholars and public figures to Ouachita’s campus.
By Ryleigh Salmon