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Wal-Mart Puts Its Faith in Ex-Nun to Convert Critics

The retailer hopes that a new hire, who's worked in war-torn regions, can help it boost its image.

July 18, 2006|Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writer

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is turning to a seasoned expert for help burnishing its battered image: a former nun with experience in war-torn regions.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based company said Monday that Harriet Hentges, 65, will help it reach out to activist groups critical of the retailer's sourcing, environmental, ethics and healthcare policies.

Hentges began her Wal-Mart career with what she called an "immersion into the issues of the store" -- two weeks at a Washington, D.C.-area Wal-Mart. She unloaded a truck, worked the customer service desk, bagged goods, cashiered and stocked shelves. She started in Bentonville this month.

"Whether it's violence, which I've dealt with in the past 10 years, or societal improvement, which is what I'm dealing with now, the issue is the same," Hentges said in a telephone interview Monday. "You need collaboration across interests and collaboration across sectors to really be effective.

"The more I learned about the company, the more I learned two things -- how serious they were and their potential to make a difference -- and that is very attractive."

Hentges previously served as vice president of the United States Institute of Peace. The nonpartisan group, funded by Congress, works to resolve violent international conflicts and build postwar stability and democracy in regions including Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and the Balkans.

She also is a former executive director of the League of Women Voters and a former nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She has a doctorate in international economics from Johns Hopkins University.

Among her responsibilities are coordinating with groups such as Environmental Defense, which said recently that it would open an office in Bentonville, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said.

In a speech to employees last year, Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott said the company would more closely monitor suppliers' factories for labor abuses, improve health benefits for employees and lead environmental changes such as improving the efficiency of its stores and massive truck fleet.

Scott's comments came as the company faced mounting business, legal and civic pressure.

Wal-Mart, which has seen its stock stagnate over the last few years, promised Wall Street growth, in part through expansion to newer territories for the company. But those more urban and unionized areas along the East and West coasts and Chicago are regions, critics charge, where residents are particularly concerned about the company's social policies.

"What the American people want and we hope Ms. Hentges can accomplish, is that Wal-Mart becomes a more responsible employer that pays a living wage, provides affordable healthcare and reflects the best of American values," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for the union-backed group WakeUpWalMart.com.

"Unfortunately, what has ended up happening again and again is that Wal-Mart talks about wanting to change but at the end of the day, it fails to change."

Wal-Mart is facing scores of lawsuits in federal and state courts around the country filed by workers claiming that the company denied employees overtime pay and meal breaks. It also is facing the nation's largest class-action suit, which alleges discrimination against as many as 1.5 million of its female employees.

The company also is fighting a case filed in California claiming that Wal-Mart failed to enforce codes at its suppliers' global factories, misleading the American public and ignoring sweatshop conditions.

Hentges, whose appointment as the company's first "senior director of stakeholder engagement" was reported first by Bloomberg News, said she was attracted to Wal-Mart because of its potential to be a leader in confronting some of society's most serious social problems.

"I think we have a lot to learn from a variety of stakeholders and that is the single most important charge I've been given: How do we learn from those people who have different perspectives than us, but not necessarily different objectives," Hentges said. "Wal-Mart is prepared to listen and learn."

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