Thomas Russell -- Furniture Today, May 5, 2012
I'm shocked," as inspector Renault in Casablanca would say. "Shocked to learn there is bribery going on in international business."
The big New York Times story last week about Walmart routinely bribing Mexican officials as it rapidly expanded its store base in that country - and then covering up its own internal investigation into the matter - can't come as any great shock to anyone who operates their business in foreign countries.
Me, other than lying on some of their beaches and drinking a lot of their tequila, I've never really done business in Mexico so I can't speak from any first-hand experience. But there are enough anecdotal and confirmed reports of corruption and bribery in that country that would seem to indicate that this is nothing unusual there. Same goes for many other countries around the world, including our very own United States.
The Walmart cover-up is another story. According to the Times report, an internal whistle-blower blew that whistle loud and hard to anyone within earshot in beautiful downtown Bentonville. And after some perfunctory knee-jerking, the big boys at the big store pleaded hard of hearing and shut down the entire process of looking into the matter.
Don't you just love independent investigations?
All of this nastiness allegedly took place during a period of time when Walmart's public image was not exactly the yellow smiley face it pretended to be. The company was getting slammed from every imaginable corner - from workers claiming unfair treatment to environmentalists screaming about the company's eco-unfriendly processes to cities and towns setting up roadblocks at their borders to keep the Big W from invading their retail environs. It was not a pretty picture.
To Walmart's credit, they have made a credible effort to clean up that image. There have been all sorts of initiatives to try to paint a friendlier picture of the store and win over some of the naysayers. And if some of it has been lip-service, so be it. They would certainly not be the first - and absolutely won't be the last - to try to blow smoke up the consumer's whatever.
But what's most disturbing about this Mexican bribery situation is the lack of responsibility ... something that continues right through to today. Just last week in response to inquiries about the company's behavior, a spokesman for Walmart was quoted as saying that these allegations were more than six years old and "if true, it is not a reflection of who we are or what we stand for."
If only that were true. From the extensive Times investigation it appears that at least some of the people who run Walmart today - from ceo Mike Duke to members of the board of directors to other officers - were the very same people involved in the cover up and shutdown of the internal investigation.
If that turns out to be the case, then there will no doubt be some serious repercussions in Bentonville, perhaps stretching all the way to the top.
Dealing with these kinds of international issues is increasingly part of what's required in doing business these days. But not dealing with the consequences is what's wrong with doing business these days.
Warren Shoulberg Publisher/Editorial Director
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