BENTONVILLE, ARK. — At a Democratic presidential debate last month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton described Wal-Mart, the world's largest retail company, as a "mixed blessing." She spoke from experience.
From 1986 to 1992, Clinton was a member of its board of directors, carefully navigating through a spate of internal policy concerns that now weigh on Wal-Mart's corporate image.
Former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. board members and executives recall Clinton as a politically nimble insider who cautiously tried to nudge the company toward hiring more female executives and environmentally friendly practices, to limited effect, while remaining silent as Wal-Mart pursued anti-union strategies.
Four times a year, Clinton would leave Little Rock, driven by Arkansas state troopers and sometimes accompanied by her husband, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, for a three-hour ride to Bentonville, the northwest Arkansas company town that sprouted up around Wal-Mart's headquarters.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Clinton and Wal-Mart: An article Saturday in Section A about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's tenure on the Wal-Mart board of directors said that in early 1992 she told two friends confidentially that her husband, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, was planning to run for president. The conversation took place in early fall 1991.
While her husband tended to state duties, she joined all-day Wal-Mart board meetings chaired by the firm's billionaire patriarch, Sam Walton, and attended by Walton's family members, directors and top executives.
Crowded with the others around metal folding tables in the kitchen of a converted warehouse -- a no-frills board room selected by "Mr. Sam" himself -- Clinton assumed the role of loyalist reformer, making the case for measured change without rocking the boat.
She voted on company policies and joined several advisory committees during a period that was a turning point for the firm as it transformed rapidly from a regional chain of cut-rate stores to a worldwide retail powerhouse. Her Wal-Mart tenure exposed Clinton to the inner workings of a mega-corporation, and foreshadowed an impulse in her political career to both prod and accommodate big business.
"She brought a pragmatic understanding of how life works," said Robert K. Rhoads, a Fayetteville, Ark., attorney who was Wal-Mart's general counsel and the board's corporate secretary. "She was a real savvy board member and one smart lawyer."
Wal-Mart critics say her presence brought little lasting change to the firm. And former executives say she was not a voice for bold reform.
"She was not a dissenter," said Donald G. Soderquist, Wal-Mart's former chief operating officer and the board's vice chairman during Clinton's tenure. "She was a part of those decisions."
Corporate directors are obligated to "protect shareholder value, pure and simple," said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. If Clinton was brought on to the Wal-Mart board as a "change agent," Elson said, "she shouldn't have been put on there in the first place."
The New York senator's former relationship with the company poses a mixed blessing for her presidential run. The phenomenal growth of Wal-Mart's empire across the country has been a boon to consumers, but it has also drawn fierce fire from labor organizers who accuse the retail behemoth of union-busting tactics, poor wages and healthcare benefits, and mistreatment of female workers.
A request to interview Sen. Clinton was turned down by her campaign, but spokesman Howard Wolfson said: "Wal-Mart is now one of the country's largest employers, and Mrs. Clinton still believes it is important to try to influence the decisions they make because they can affect so many people. Sen. Clinton has made clear that Wal-Mart has an obligation to provide good health benefits and good wages to its workers. Wal-Mart workers should be able to unionize and bargain collectively."
Wal-Mart looms as one of labor's litmus tests for Democratic presidential candidates. One top labor political director expressed doubt that Clinton's 20-year-old Wal-Mart board tenure would be a "make or break" factor, but candidates have repeatedly been asked about their stands on Wal-Mart during recent AFL-CIO union forums.
Labor leaders said Clinton was questioned about Wal-Mart in January when she met with top officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union at the forefront of national efforts to organize Wal-Mart workers. A UFCW official said "she made a presentation and was asked about Wal-Mart," but would not give details on the session.
Clinton often touted Wal-Mart without reservation. But as the labor-backed campaign against Wal-Mart intensified in recent years, she has tempered her public enthusiasm, even giving back a $5,000 political donation from Wal-Mart's political action committee in 2005.
Clinton amassed nearly $100,000 worth of Wal-Mart stock as a director, much of which she and her husband placed in 1993 into a blind trust that they still maintain.