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VOL. 37 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 7, 2013

Wal-Mart plans $15B more in stock buybacks

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Wal-Mart's biggest news at its annual meeting on Friday was that the world's largest retailer will repurchase up to $15 billion of its shares at a time when the behemoth faces increased scrutiny from investors over its business overseas.

The buyback replaces the current $15 billion share repurchase program that Wal-Mart began in 2011. About $712 million is left under that program, according to the company.

The program comes as Wal-Mart encounters concerns over how it handled bribery allegations that surfaced last year at its Mexican unit. The company also is being pressured to increase its oversight of factories abroad following a building collapse in April in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. Wal-Mart wasn't using any of the factories in the building at the time of the collapse, but it is the second-largest retail buyer of clothing in Bangladesh.

During the annual meeting, shareholders in the audience presented five proposals that related to increasing governance of its board in light of the incidents overseas. They included a proposal for an independent chairman that doesn't serve as an executive at Wal-Mart. None of those resolutions passed, according to a preliminary shareholder tally.

"If the world's largest retailer refused to improve the state of workers' rights and labor standards, things will not change," said Kalpona Akter, a labor activist based in Bangladesh, who introduced the proposal about having a special shareholders' meeting.

Executives referred to the problems Wal-Mart has been having abroad during the meeting.

"Our company was founded on integrity," CEO Mike Duke said. "Make no mistake about it --we will do the right thing."

Robson Walton, chairman and son of late founder Sam Walton, echoed that sentiment: "Integrity, transparency and openness guide our decisions."

Wal-Mart, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., is tackling tough ethical questions overseas as it also deals with growth problems at home. The retailer known of selling discounted home goods, clothes and groceries, is seeing signs that its low-income shoppers in the country continue to struggle.

While the company said its first-quarter profit edged up slightly, it reported its first decline in revenue at Wal-Mart's U.S. stores open at least a year in seven quarters. Wal-Mart U.S. stores account for 59 percent of the company's total sales, which reached $466.1 billion for the year ended Jan. 31, excluding revenue from membership fees from its Sam's Club division.

Wal-Mart is trying new ways to rev up growth in its U.S. business. For instance, it's trying to tailor merchandise to clusters of stores that attract similar shoppers.

Wal-Mart also recently rolled out a three-part plan the company says can help jumpstart the economy. In January, the company said it will hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years, spend $50 billion to buy more American-made merchandise in the next 10 years and help its part-time workers move into full-time positions.

Wal-Mart said earlier this week that 12,000 veterans have applied for the veterans program since Memorial Day when the plan officially kicked off. But the company continues to face critics who say that it doesn't treat its workers well.

In response, Wal-Mart has launched a website called www.therealwalmart.com that it hopes will do a better job in telling its side of the story about how the company is a place of opportunity for workers. Bill Simon, CEO of Wal-Mart's U.S. namesake division, noted that nearly 75 percent of its workers in store management positions started out in hourly positions.

"What makes Wal-Mart special is the opportunities," he told shareholders at Friday's meeting.

And Duke surrounded himself on stage during the meeting with Wal-Mart workers who started out as cashiers and other low level jobs and are now part of store management. "No company provides more opportunity to more people to go from where they are to where they want to be than Wal-Mart," he said.

Overseas, the company is trying to address its issues, too.

The New York Times first reported in April 2012 that Wal-Mart failed to notify law enforcement that company officials authorized millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico to speed up getting building permits and gain other favors. Since then, Wal-Mart has been working with government officials in the U.S. and Mexico on that investigation.

The company also has said it's been investing in fortifying controls overseas and has hired new executives to oversee its efforts to comply with laws against foreign bribes. Starting this year, the company is also tying some of its executives' compensation to how successful the company is overhauling its compliance division.

Separately, Wal-Mart has been working on improving clothing factories it does business with in Bangladesh following the building collapse there.

Wal-Mart said last month that it will conduct in-depth inspections at all of the 279 factories it uses in Bangladesh and will make the inspection information public. It also is joining a group of U.S. retailers and U.S. trade retail and apparel groups to improve fire and safety regulations in garment factories.

All that was in the backdrop during Wal-Mart's annual meeting.

The meeting, which took place at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville's Bud Walton Arena, attracts thousands of investors and has historically had the air of a giant pep rally. This year, 14,000 people attended.

Singers John Legend, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson entertained. Actor Tom Cruise also took the stage to talk about Wal-Mart's efforts in sustainability and working with women-owned businesses.

"X-Men" and "Les Miserables" star Hugh Jackman hosted the meeting. He opened the event by singing a rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." Later he sang a song from "Les Miserables" and showed a video on his phone of his daughter acting.

"I have never been up this early in my entire life," Jackman quipped. "7 a.m.?"

Protesters were expected at the meeting. "We may be joined by folks who want to disrupt this meeting," said Rob Walton. But no disruptive protests materialized.

During the meeting, all 14 directors up for election were elected and shareholders also approved resolutions related to its accountant, non-binding approval of executive compensation and a management incentive plan. The final results of shareholder votes will be announced Monday.

Wal-Mart shares rose 83 cents in early afternoon trading to $76.46 Friday. They are up a little more than 50 percent from around $50 in August 2011 when Wal-Mart started to see a turnaround in its US namesake business after a more than two-year slump.

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