Salem Walmart wins Helen Walton leadership award

Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Print Editor

The Salem Walmart has been open for only a year, but it has been honored with the company’s most prestigious award, the Helen Walton Excellence in Community Leadership Award. Store Manager Mike King was presented the award in front of a crowd of 15,000 at a Walmart meeting in Houston Feb. 22.

“It’s the epitome,” said King of the award. “It’s the biggest award.” There are 6,000 Walmart stores. Only one Helen Walton Award is presented annually.

King, who’s been a manager with the nation’s largest retail chain more than 20 years, came to Salem from the Clarksville store. He made the move because he wanted the challenge of not just opening a new store, but making it a standout.

Assistant Manager Brad Gilbert who also previously worked at Clarksville said that store won Super Center of the Year under King’s leadership. “I’m pretty sure Mike is the only store manager that has won Super Center and the Helen Walton,” he said. “That’s a really awesome thing!”

The Helen Walton Award is based on community service, both what the store does to support the local area and how much employees volunteer on their own time with community organizations.

The store employs around 300 people whom King describes as “a great group.” Salem has the highest associate engagement score in the region. That’s based on employee response to a survey measuring how involved and engaged associates are with their community.

Gilbert said the outstanding response is evidence of the pride employees take in the community. “We’re proud of the fact that we’re number one in the region. We beat the average score for the company big time.”

The award is also based on how engaged the store is with fundraising for charities.

“We hang our hat on a couple of things,” explained King. “One of them is the Children’s Miracle Network. That’s a Walmart thing; we’re passionate about helping sick kids.”

Salem set a goal of raising $6,000 in its first year. They more than tripled that, raising a total of $20,000. That money goes to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

Walmart also works to help people in crisis with much of that being more behind the scenes. Gilbert said the store has programs in the local schools to help children in need. This year, they also helped with Salem Middle School’s Tie Guys, a leadership program for middle school boys. Gilbert said, “That one is near and dear to my heart. Dan Mullins [one of the organizers] was one of my teachers and coaches.”

Walmart also helps with the Washington County Community Foundation’s Happily Ever After Program, which provides books for local third graders. The store also supports fire departments, law enforcement and parks and recreation.

Perhaps no local organization has been impacted by Walmart like the Washington County Food Bank. With the number of people seeking food increasing year after year, the food bank struggled to fill the need, despite great local support. In its first year, Walmart donated $300,000 worth of food, including fresh meat, produce and bakery items – things that were rare before. “The food bank went from not having enough food to literally having to knock down walls,” said King. Last year, the food bank moved to a new, larger location on South Water Street to accommodate both clients and the increased supply of food.

Walmart puts its money where its employees volunteer. Those who volunteer a certain number of hours each quarter earn $250 for the organization they’re helping. Gilbert said more than half of the Salem store employees are involved with a local program or organization.

The Salem store has also been successful on the business end, meeting or exceeding all sales goals. “You have to hit the business metrics or they don’t even look at you,” explained King.

While the biggest company in the world is sometimes perceived for having negative effects on small communities, King said he hopes this award will highlight just how much Walmart gives back on the local level.

Walmart, said King, “is a small business that actually succeeded.” Founder Sam Walton opened his first store in a small town using a $5,000 loan from a family member.

Having a Walmart in Salem gives people from surrounding communities a reason to come here, said King. That provides an opportunity for other local small businesses, he said.

“It’s a domino effect,” said Brad. “The dollars stay in our county and are passed on to other businesses.”

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