Episode 270: Extracting Value from Multinational Perspectives with Judith McKenna

April 10 , 2024  |  By Brent Williams

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This week on the Be Epic podcast, Brent sits down with Judith McKenna, former president and CEO of Walmart International. They begin with Judith sharing her career journey from law school to holding numerous roles within Asda and Walmart, culminating as head of Walmart's international business across 19 countries. She discusses the importance of building empowering teams and relating to diverse cultures globally. Brent and Judith also explore the changing retail landscape and priorities around continued growth balanced with preserving quality of life. Listeners gain insights into Judith's people-focused leadership perspective developed over decades navigating massive transformation in the industry.

Podcast Episode

Episode Transcript

Judith McKenna  0:00  
Be a team, player. And if you can set out with that, from day one, it's incredible. I have this phrase, which is, it's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.

Brent Williams  0:11  
Welcome to the Be Epic Podcast, brought to you by the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. I'm your host, Brent Williams. Together, we'll explore the dynamic landscape of business, and uncover the strategies, insights and stories that drive business today. Today, I have with me, Judith McKenna. And Judith was recently retired as president, CEO of Walmart International, amongst many other things. But Judith, thank you for joining us today.

Judith McKenna  0:47  
Thank you for having me here. today. I'm excited to spend the day with all of you and to learn more about the college. 

Brent Williams  0:53  
Yeah, well, today, you know, in addition to to the role I just mentioned, you're also you've recently joined the board of Unilever, wonderful company, and today, you're serving as our Executive in Residence. So and investing in your time in our students. We're excited to have you here.

Judith McKenna  1:11  
Thank you very much indeed, I'm looking forward to it.

Brent Williams  1:14  
I want to spend a little time today talking about retail, of course, and where retail is going. I think you've got a pretty unique vantage point of having run a global business across 19 countries, I believe, when you when you left Walmart a few months ago. So I want to spend some time digging into that I want to dig into what you've learned along the way, which is I'm sure what you're going to be sharing with our students today. But maybe first, for our listeners, a little bit about your background. I think you, I think you have an accounting background as an undergraduate and started with KPMG. But I'll let you tell us more.

Judith McKenna  1:56  
Well, actually, my undergraduate is law, 

Brent Williams  1:58  
it is? Ok 

Judith McKenna  1:59  
So I'm law, and then I went into accountancy while I figured out what I wanted to do and worked for KPMG discover discovered a quite a truth early on that math isn't my strong point. But still qualified, I am qualified which as you find the rest of the story is mildly amusing, went in from there and eventually joined a client which had been working at which was Allied Domecq and something called the Tetley pub company, which is a brewing and pub owning 

Brent Williams  2:28  

Judith McKenna  2:28  
business which is utterly fascinating, incredibly traditional business, incredibly fascinating as your first role in industry as you come out of a profession. And I learned so much about people and what we did there. But then I moved, actually, I lost my job, the company restructured, I was made redundant, I had a nine month old baby at the time, and I was like, What am I gonna do? I, you know, I don't know. And there was a business called Asda, which is one of the UK supermarkets, one of the biggest supermarkets in the UK. And they were literally across the road from where I'd been working. And the decision that I made to go there was I only need to do it for about a year in order to get my feet on the ground, because it's a bit of a shock to the system, what had happened. And 27 years later, I'm still here. So don't ever take career advice from me about what to do. So I started at Asda.

Brent Williams  3:25  
I'll take advice on resilience. How about that?

Judith McKenna  3:28  
It's all part of it. Yeah. You know, these journeys, I always described them as almost the sliding door moments in life and in careers and you choose your attitude as you move through those sliding doors, however it plays out. And so I started at Asda, I started running a really small team in the kind of accounting services department, and worked my way through that. And ultimately, Walmart came along and bought us. And we were like, Oh, we were in the middle of another deal beforehand. And they came in and swooped Asda from that, continued to work in finance. And I eventually became the CFO, which is quite amusing. If you think about my earlier comments about maths may not be my strong point. Interesting point about finance. You have to be competent enough at the maths, but it's way more than that. And it's also massively about people as well. So I was the CFO for nearly a decade. But while I was doing that, I was the kind of person that said, Oh, yes, you know, so and so's left from this function. I'll I'll run that for a while. So I run on HR for a while, I run technology for a while. I ran supply chain for a bit. I did just about everything except merchandising there, and even did a little bit of operations. We did a deal to buy some shops from a business called Neto. And we did all of the, I did the diligence, the m&a and everything. We got to the end of that and I was like, I don't want somebody else to run this. So I said, can I run these stores because they're much different format to the ones we had. They went yeah, just just for a while until we figure everything out. But you're not keeping them. I was like, okay, and then their chief operating officer opportunity came up. They didn't finance being a CFO for a decade was kind of learning these kind of operating ropes. And I said, I'd stick my hand up and like, I'll do it. And they said, well, if you do this one, you have to give up finance. You can't do both. And I said, well, what's the worst that could happen? And I did it. And so I did Chief Operating Officer for Asda for just under three years. And then I made the decision to come over to the US with Walmart, for an experience brought my family, I have two grown up kids. And my husband, and I came only for two years. I knew exactly when I was going home, I knew the dates the kids were going back into school. And that was it, no question about it. And I moved into international to be the head of strategy, m&a, and business development in the international business, really big challenge for me, but I've only done it for about a year when Doug McMillon moved to be the CEO of Walmart, Inc. and he said, would you mind coming into the US and having a quick look and seeing two things? One is we have neighborhood markets, which are really just starting to grow and would you operate those for a period of time? And would you have a look at this intersection of digital and physical, we think there is something in the intersection, the word omnichannel hadn't even been created at that point. And I would tell you, there was less of an intersection and more of two parallel paths at that stage that were running. So I started to do that there was a whole pile of change. Again, remember, my plan was to go home on you may date. And by a series of events, including the CEO of Walmart US changing, I ended up becoming the Chief Operating Officer of Walmart US which is 1.2 million people, four and a half 1000 stores and a small British accountant from the north of England categorically

Brent Williams  7:05  
Oh the irony

brunning knows, it's the best job in the world. It was fantastic. Did that for about three years. Note never got home back to the UK at this point. 

Brent Williams  7:14  
Still here. By the way, 

Judith McKenna  7:15  
Still here, we'd abandoned all hope of that completely. And I'm incredibly grateful for those opportunities. And those moments, the sliding doors, that decisions worked out as we went through them. And then six years ago, just over six news seven years ago, now I became the CEO of Walmart International, and operated that until my retirement on the 31st of January this year.

Brent Williams  7:38  
What a what a career thus far and starting chapter two. It sounds like at this point. You know, Judith, I mean, what you just said, I can't remember exactly the way you said it. But you know, when Doug McMillon assumes the CEO role and says, Come over and like let's look at this intersection of digital and physical. That was a pretty historical moment. You may not have known it at the time. But my goodness, 

Judith McKenna  8:05  
Yeah, it was. I think it was clear. So in the UK had this advantage because in the UK, we'd operated online grocery shopping for a long time, it had taken us years to create a model that we thought could ultimately work and we'd had a lot of failures along the way. But I ran the grocery online grocery teams when I was Chief Operating Officer over there. And I'd watched it grow up. And it was a real I can remember the launch of grocery shopping right back and it would have been like eight or nine years previous to all of that, probably longer. And I can remember the presentation that the lady she was called Sheena Ford, who was making about why we should invest in online shopping. And it's a picture of a dinosaur in the front of this presentation. And it said eat lunch or be lunch. And it's always stuck with me. And when we came to the US, I know I knew that the US was already looking it got two stores, it was trying some things in it had been to France, it had seen the French models of cliques drive throughs and do that. And the rest really was just actually if we can make people work together and understand that this is not a bad thing. It's a good thing. And everybody can play a part in it. So that transformation was as much about getting people's mindsets transformed as it ever was fiscally what we did, and that's at both ends, which was stores and people from that side of it saying this is cannibalizing our business aid, why would we do this people are going to stop coming in shops. And then E commerce folks saying no the world is going to be an online. We're not going to need this same number of stores are not going to operate the same way. As we now know history. is written, and the sweet spot is in the middle. But we just started, we just started with online pickup. We didn't do delivery, because myself and a guy called Mark Ibbotson had promised ourselves that if we ever got a chance to start over, he and I'd worked on it in the UK, we would start with pickup and then move to delivery, who in the world gets a chance to redo it all over again, and at the world's largest retailer. So that is why pickup was the first thing we did not delivery until we built the muscle about how to pick and then we could expand into the delivery later. 

Brent Williams  10:37  

Judith McKenna  10:38  
That makes it sound like it was really easy, really quick thing to do. It really wasn't. And it was, it was like a ringside seat actually being in the ring, not just the seat to watching a business mind shift in terms of what was important, and how you could get growth from this. And I'll tell you a funny side story. Some people who know Walmart's around, not just locally, you'll know that when we very first started there was big orange pickup signs on the corners of Walmart's we painted them bright orange, and it said pick up on them. People have often asked like, you know, how did you think about the branding color? How did you do that? For all of those students who are still studying branding and how you have to be really thoughtful about it, you do. But in that particular cases, we just wanted people to see it. Because nobody knew what on earth it meant or what it was or where to go. So we painted them bright orange and hope for the best. As it turns out, it worked out beautifully. But it's now so embedded. You don't need to do that anymore. You can just it's just warm up.

Brent Williams  10:38  
Yeah, when you said that, like I can see the orange sign in my mind. And it's it's a reminder of sometimes things can be really simple. 

Judith McKenna  11:09  
That's right. 

Brent Williams  11:15  
Hard, but simple. 

Judith McKenna  11:52  
That's exactly right. 

Brent Williams  11:54  
Well, as your as you've now experienced both US, well, UK, US and then global. And you've been there at a pretty historical moment and helped Walmart to really build out the way its omni channel strategy and capabilities. What do you see changing now that interests you, you know, whether that's in pockets across the world? Or? Yeah, anything about the way that you see retail and commerce changing?

Judith McKenna  12:28  
Yeah, I think that what I love, as I think everybody has accepted that the model is Omni, and that there is a place for stores, in whatever that future looks like. Because people didn't always believe that. And I firmly have always believed it. And they're an incredible asset, if run correctly, when you're an online retailer, as well. So I see that, I think there will be less in terms of the physical flow of what happens, it might be how you get your product will change in the future. So I think the work that Walmart is doing, for example, on drones is fascinating that how does last mile continue to develop automated vehicles, drones, that that is a fascinating area, which could give even more access to people and working that. But I think what's really going to happen and you've got quite a way into this without talking about AI. And Gen AI is how do retailers personalize in the future, show you things of interest to you, without cutting you off from a breadth of display that you will also want to be able to browse. And it's interesting when people shop online as many people know, sometimes you go in to buy a product, you know what you want, and sometimes you just want to look and the better that we get at doing those things, serving up experiences to people I think it's gonna be interesting. I do also think there is some trends coming through which will affect so wellness, health. People want to know where products come from, what does that look like? I think that opens up a whole nother set of opportunities as well in retail and supplies chains for retail. But I when I look around the world, what I do get excited about in retail is product development. We talk we talk about retail we always talk about you know, tech and how it's going to change products and products around the world. So for you I'll take one particular category. Today I look at the UK and what we would call ready meals convenience food is massive. It is a huge part of the shopping basket, way more underdeveloped in the US opportunity in those kind of areas. So I think product development is something that's really interesting as well.

Brent Williams  15:04  
So products that excite customers. And and then also, you know, one thing you said about the the development of the Omni experiences, while using AI generative AI potentially to better serve up to me what I need and want, it is still shopping, you know, and there's still some excitement in that. 

Judith McKenna  15:25  
Yeah. And I, you know, I do upset some people, I say this fundamentally, we buy things, we move things, we show people things, we sell things. Everything else around, that is the technology that enables a lot of that. Now, I do think as you start to serve up those personalized kind of experiences and everything else, their risk of that is data and trust. Because you know, what, people and the people who get this right, will be those who make me feel this is an experience that I'm in no way, no, my data isn't being used for something, I wouldn't want it to be used, but I trust you with my data. And that relationship works for both of us. And that I think is going to be increasingly important as well. 

Brent Williams  16:15  
Well one thing I've noticed Judith that I feel like at least you do really well is you take really complicated things and actually make them a little simpler so that someone can get their head around them. How did you? How did you take that skill, or other skills, and now move from the US from the UK to the US. And now all of a sudden, you know, you're managing a business that's in 19, 20 countries.

Judith McKenna  16:40  
Yeah, I should probably not let you into the secret of one of the reasons I tried to do that is I have to understand it, in business, as you come up, you one of the things that's brilliant about is you will get involved and engaged in things that you have no experience of, and that could be healthcare, it could be financial services. Now the big trends are things that are happening. You I can't pretend to be an expert. So for me to be able to understand that and make sure is there the right guard rails? Are we thinking about this the right way? Should we make investments, I need for myself to be able to boil it down to what are the principles of this? And that concept of the principles of something if you get to that, everything else is variants of that. And if there's a groundbreaking disruptive model that does something differently, understand what that is. And that is a universal skill, like anywhere, and there are people who do it even better than I do that complex problems. And they explain it to me. Oh, that's what you meant. And the translation, therefore, between the UK and the US was relatively straightforward from that. Although I think some people when I came over, they would still say this, if you talk to anybody is I asked too many questions. Like I am Mrs. Questions. And the reason for that is because that's how I understand. And as I process that information, I can then think about how do I create models in my head, for how things work, the biggest difference between moving from the UK to the US was the language, completely divided by a common language. It was that was by far the hardest thing. And I grew up with American TV, because we used to get all of the shows, I'm not gonna tell you which ones because it'll age me horribly. But like had some of it, but some of my phraseology just didn't work here. Can you can you imagine standing on stage at the year beginning meeting for Walmart in front of all of their store managers. And I'm saying something, and the whole of the audience is just looking at me. We have no idea what you just said. Like that doesn't translate at all.

Brent Williams  18:43  
That's funny. Yeah. I mean, it makes sense. And once you say it, but now, but now so you know that you had to do that here. How do you do that across 19, 20 countries? I think earlier, when we were talking, you said something about you felt like one really important thing about running a global business is that? Yeah, I don't know exactly how you said it. But you have to be local in some way.

Judith McKenna  19:07  
Yeah. And I'm passionate about this, which is, I believe the way to be successfully successful locally. It globally is to think local. That doesn't mean you're not global. That doesn't mean that you can't bring all of the advantages of being global. There are some things that are non negotiable, and ethics and compliance and those areas that should be global. But how will you understand the customer? That's a local customer. That's a local team. Now, I also believe that customers are more alike around the world than they are different. But once you have that, as a central principle, that closest to the customer, we have to be able to localize the further up the pipe you go, the more global we should become. That actually gives you for me quite a good blueprint for how you operate a global business. The phrase I use in the strategy for Walmart international that I had was strong local businesses powered by Walmart. So for me, that is a market as a business in a market that is independently strong in that market, it's close to its customer, it can take the right decisions. It knows its competition, it adapts to that. But the powered by Walmart means that it is actually it has an advantage, because it is part of the Walmart family. And Walmart gets something in return from that business as well. And that can be innovation sharing, the more that you can do the same, the better, undoubtedly, but you have to know where those lines are. So I'm a great believer in kind of a multi local model. In some ways. The biggest thing when you start to translate anything globally, for me is culture. And you have to understand different cultures, you have to understand the nuances of those cultures. People generally want the same things. They have the same hopes, fears and dreams. However, the context around them might be slightly different. So not going to market and saying here are all of the things I know and I believe, say, let me understand first. And then let's figure out how we get better the best of both worlds here to create that kind of local model that's still global.

Brent Williams  21:32  
Is this where I think you've called yourself a moment ago, Mrs. Questions. I assume that that was a tremendous if that's the way you think in the way you've learned, I assume that was a tremendous advantage as you go into the market, spend time there. Ask questions and listen, is it that simple? Yes.

Judith McKenna  21:50  
And by the way, that's no different than US. So when I was running the US operations, it was the same thing, walk stores, just ask questions, get people to tell you what was happening. And just, you know, the simplest question, what's happening in your day to day? Hey, what's working well, tell me, do you have any ideas how we could make this better? That that's kind of a store conversation. But culturally, I can remember going into India. And I'd been much earlier in my career, and then went back when I went into the international role. And I, one of the things I said to the team, so what would you recommend I read and the team's in rather than me buying books here, the teams there gave me three or four books and said, read these if you want to even start to understand which by the way, you'll never be able to be there. But it will give you a grounding for it. And then I'd run some listening sessions, I just get people to talk to me, just tell me what you do. Tell me how does family life to work life work? How do families behave at home? Tell me those things. And of course, everyone's different, you know, it's a multitude of states there. Same thing, same as a US actually, everything's got its own rituals, and kind of rhythm to it can't know it all, you can know enough to be culturally adept, and respectful. And I think respect is an incredibly important part of it.

Brent Williams  23:20  
I've followed you on LinkedIn for some time known about your career. And one thing I've noticed, I think I've noticed hope, I'm hope I've interpreted this correctly, you're passionate about teams and building teams, and building teams that function at a high level, maybe kind of where did that come from in you and like, any tips that you would have like, well, you know, I'm sure you've made some mistakes and had some great successes. What do you learn from that?

Judith McKenna  23:50  
Yeah, I am passionate about teams. And I think I think it comes from a couple of different places. One is, I've worked in good teams, and I've worked in bad teams. And the difference in those, you know, one of these people, like if I ever get to a place where I run a team, they're the things I won't do, and then things I will do. And so part of it was that, and then I just I enjoy seeing people develop. That's critical to me. And frankly, I can't do it on my own. Like I'm not bright enough. There's not enough hours in the day. And there's always somebody that knows more than me and has a better idea than I do. So if you can get people to do that, what they can do that you can't do, and you make it a relationship where everybody grows, then that's a win win, and why wouldn't you? And maybe some of it, I haven't really thought about it this way, but maybe some of it comes back to the fact that I am not the best accountant in the world. Like I'm not bad. I'm fine. But I'm never going to be a superstar at it so you have to build a team with superstars in it, but they'll only be a superstar in your team and want to be in your team. If you treat them well, and the team is successful. So all of these threads start to come together. And life's too short to not have fun as well. Life is too short not to have fun and creating some fun and some energy means you go home yourself in a better place as you hope everybody goes back in a better place as well. So the advice I would, you know, it's interesting, when I break down advice, one of the things I always say is be a team player, be a team, player, and if you can set out with that in day one, it's incredible, I have this phrase, which is it's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit. And that is a mantra that I have tried to live by, I will hopefully be the first to put somebody on a pedestal and say, look at what they did, they did a brilliant job with this. In a meeting, you know, there's some where you've got to be careful as to who's in there. But the majority, like, listen to this person, like they're the ones who know this. Now you're also their safety net. As they're learning to do that, because it's scary the first time you have to present something or do something so and the first to have high expectations. And if you ask somebody for a list of my attributes, I'm sure high expectations would be on there. And I don't always get it right. Sometimes they're too I don't think I'm sorry, I'd correct that. I don't think you never have to higher expectations. How I bring people along is sometimes has been one of my weak spots that I've consistently had to work on. At the same time, making sure that you have a really diverse team, that all understands that part in it. It's critical.

Brent Williams  26:53  
And so fun to build a team like that, lead it and then watch those people thrive. Isn't it?

Judith McKenna  27:00  
Yes, it is great seeing your team here. And you're applying all of those same principles. We had some time together with your team, and there are smiles around the table as an energy about people that matters.

Brent Williams  27:12  
It does matter. Totally agree. Well, we've touched a good bit on probably what is my final question, but I'll ask if there's one other thing, maybe. So when you think about the Walton College 1000s of students here, most of them are young people that are about to start their first job. If if you just had to give one piece of advice to that graduating senior, from what you've learned, what would it be?

Judith McKenna  27:41  
I'm always challenged when somebody says give me one piece of advice. But I will try to follow that. 

Brent Williams  27:46  
I'll give you two or three, 

Judith McKenna  27:47  
Well, thank you, I would have probably done them anyway. 

Brent Williams  27:51  
That's what I thought 

Judith McKenna  27:54  
I'm gonna get like, there is one basic thing that you're going to think is hilarious, which gets, you have to work hard. 

Brent Williams  28:02  

Judith McKenna  28:02  
I and I can give you all of the advice in the world. But if you're not prepared to work hard, then that's one of the fundamentals of it. That doesn't mean you can't have free time. That doesn't mean you can't make choices in life. But you do have to really apply yourself to whatever it is that you do. The second thing that I would say is find something that brings you joy that you can be passionate about. And that might not be your first job. It could be your second or your third or your fourth. But you'll take experiences along the way as you do that. And it's not by not talking about having things that find you find joy in a job that you find joy in, I don't mean every day is going to be rainbows and sparkles, like that is not what I mean, you'll have bad days, you'll actually do jobs that are not right for you. I've had plenty of them along the way. But maybe you believe in what the company does. And you know, you're getting experience and you can do that. So be find passion and joy and energy from what it is you choose to do. And finally be a student of whatever business it is. Sam Waltons famous line, be a student of the business used to tell everybody the store managers that everybody that I believe that and my natural curiosity, which would also be on the list of people's things and what they said about me means that I am always a student of whatever it is that I'm doing, and they're the best pieces. But yeah, they want a future an opportunity in front of folks that are graduating from here. It's really exciting. My own son is about to graduate this year and seeing that and I want to say that the challenges that come with that. And the stress that comes with that, too. Maybe one of the things is be resilient. You mentioned that word earlier. Be resilient. If it doesn't work out first time, there's a second time and a third time and a fourth time, your resilience will see you through so much.

Brent Williams  30:11  
I'm so excited for the students and what what the rest of their careers gonna look like. But you're right, these careers in life isn't linear, right? And embrace that and take joy in it and but going back to your first point, work hard. 

Judith McKenna  30:27  

Brent Williams  30:28  
Well, Judith, thank you for being Executive in Residence today at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Thank you for just giving your time to our students and, and teaching us and making us better.

Judith McKenna  30:39  
No, thank you. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I've enjoyed the conversation and just, you know, huge good luck to everybody who is graduating always on their journey towards that I wish you all good things for the future. 

Brent Williams  30:51  
Thanks, Judith. 

Judith McKenna  30:52  
Thank you.

Brent Williams  30:54  
On behalf of the Walton College thank you for joining us for this captivating conversation. To stay connected and never miss an episode. Simply search for be epic on your preferred podcast service.