Famed actor and comedian Tracy Morgan has filed a lawsuit against Walmart.  He was seriously injured, and his companion and fellow comedian James McNair was killed, when their chauffeured vehicle was struck by a WalMart truck going too fast under the control of an overly tired driver.

It would be easy to write this off as a one-time incident.  As something that was the mistake of one employee, and not a concern for management.  Walmart is huge, and anyone could easily say “mistakes will happen, so don’t worry.”  And as the country’s largest company (by sales and employees) Walmart is an easy target for lawsuits.

But that would belie a much more concerning situation.  One that should have investors plenty worried.

walmart

Walmart isn’t doing all that well.  It is losing customers, even as the economy recovers.  For a decade Walmart has struggled to grow revenues, and same store sales have declined – only to be propped up by store closings.  Despite efforts to grow offshore, attempts at international expansion have largely been flops.  Efforts to expand into smaller stores have had mixed success, and are marginal at generating new revenues in urban efforts.  Meanwhile, Walmart still has no coherent strategy for on-line sales expansion.

Unfortunately the numbers don’t look so good for Walmart, a company that is absolutely run by numbers.  Every single thing that can be tracked in Walmart is tracked, and managed – right down the temperature in every facility (store, distribution hub, office) 24x7x365.  When the revenue, inventory turns, margin, distribution costs, etc. aren’t going in the right direction Walmart is a company where leadership applies the pressure to employees, right down the chain, to make things better.

Unfortunately, a study by Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management has shown that when a culture is numbers driven it often leads to selfish, and unethical, behavior.  When people are focused onto the numbers, they tend to stretch the ethical (and possibly legal) boundaries to achieve those numerical goals.  A great recent example was the U.S. Veterans Administration scandal where management migrated toward lying about performance in order to meet the numerical mandates set by Secretary Shinseki.

Back in November, 2012 I pointed out that the Walmart bribery scandal in Mexico was a warning sign of big problems at the mega-retailer.  Pushed too hard to create success, Walmart leadership was at least skirting with the law if not outright violating it.  I projected these problems would worsen, and sure enough by November the bribery probe was extended to Walmart’s operations in Brazil, China and India.

We know from the many employee actions happening at Walmart that in-store personnel are feeling pressure to do more with fewer hours.  It does not take a great leap to consider it possible (likely?) that distribution personnel, right down to truck drivers are feeling pressured to work harder, get more done with less, and in some instances being forced to cut corners in order to improve Walmart’s numbers.

Exactly how much the highest levels of Walmart knows about any one incident is impossible to gauge at this time.  However, what should concern investors is whether the long-term culture of Walmart – obsessed about costs and making the numbers – has created a situation where all through the ranks people are feeling the need to walk closer to ethical, and possibly legal, lines.  While it may be that no manager told the driver to drive too fast or work too many hours, the driver might have felt the pressure from “higher up” to get his load to its destination at a certain time – or risk his job, or maybe his boss’s.

If this is a widespread cultural issue – look out!  The legal implications could be catastrophic if customers, suppliers and communities discover widespread unethical behavior that went unchecked by top echelons.  The C suite executives don’t have to condone such behavior to be held accountable – with costs that can be exorbitant.  Just ask the leaders at JPMorganChase and Citibank who are paying out billions for past transgressions.

Worse, we cannot expect the marketplace pressures to ease up any time soon for Walmart.  Competitors are struggling mightily.  JCPenney cannot seem to find anyone to take the vacant CEO job as sales remain below levels of several years ago, and the chain is most likely going to have to close several dozen (or hundreds) of stores.  Sears/KMart has so many closed and underperforming stores that practically every site is available for rent if anyone wants it.  And in the segment which is even lower priced than Walmart, the “dollar stores,” direct competitor Family Dollar saw 3rd quarter profits fall another 33% as too many stores and too few customer wreak financial havoc and portend store closings.

So the market situation is not improving for Walmart.  As competition has intensified, all signs point to a leadership which tried to do “more, better, faster, cheaper.”  But there is no way to maintain the original Walmart strategy in the face of the on-line competitive onslaught which is changing the retail game.  Walmart has continued to do “more of the same” trying to defend and extend its old success formula, when it was a disruptive innovator that stole its revenues and cut into profits.  Now all signs point to a company which is in grave danger of over-extending its success formula to the point of unethical, and potentially illegal, behavior.

If that doesn’t scare the heck out of Walmart investors I can’t imagine what would.

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