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Casually dressed executive positions Wal-Mart for online success

by Chris Bahn | November 15, 2015 at 2:44 a.m.

Wal-Mart Global e-Commerce CEO Neil Ashe tends to wear a suit only on days the company's board of directors are involved.

Casually dressed executives are not uncommon throughout Silicon Valley where Ashe is headquartered. Still, the relatively relaxed attire -- a button up and dress slacks -- earns him occasional ribbing from executives at the company's home office in Bentonville. Even Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Doug McMillon has joked that the e-commerce executive only wears a sport coat when he's cold.

Ashe is the man tasked with helping blend the culture that established Wal-Mart atop the Fortune 500 as a traditional retailer with the faster-moving, perpetually innovating world of Silicon Valley. Hired in 2012 after a stint as president of CBS Interactive, the 47-year-old Ashe is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Harvard business school.

Global e-Commerce generated about $13 billion in sales last year. That equates to less than 5 percent of the company's nearly $500 billion in worldwide revenue, but represents Wal-Mart's fastest-growing division. E-commerce has received billions in capital investments the last three years as Wal-Mart scales back its building of stores and ramps up its digital presence. It is fighting online behemoth Amazon ($89 billion) and like-minded retailers looking for the perfect blend of digital and physical assets.

Since Ashe arrived Wal-Mart has doubled its online revenue, increased its emphasis on mobile technology and, through @WalmartLabs, entirely rebuilt the systems responsible for the operation of Walmart.com and its international websites.

A transcript of our conversation appears below. Portions have been edited for space and clarity.

For those of us who aren't particularly tech-savvy, can you explain exactly how big of a task the re-platforming process was? And what it means for customers?

Lots of time with tech re-platforms and migrations people talk about changing the engines of a plane in mid-air. We changed the engines, the fuselage, the rivets, the seats, the avionics. Really all of it. That's obviously transformational. The way to think about is to imagine a collection of building blocks that can be interchangeable. So, if we want to take out a block and replace a block, we can do that. If we want to change a block we can do that. What the customer sees, what the merchant sees, is a collection of those blocks, which are relevant to whatever she is doing, what she needs to do. It gives us significant adaptability and scalability for customer service.

You have not been shy about publicly taking jabs at some online competitors like Jet.com and Amazon.com. Is that just your personality or a calculated move to send some sort of message?

Look, we all want to have a little bit of fun doing this. We're not curing cancer here. We're trying to build a business. We're trying to serve customers. Why not have a little fun? You're not used to hearing somebody from Wal-Mart say these things. That's a little bit about who we are here. As I've said, we've built an Internet technology company inside the world's largest retailer, not a retailer in Silicon Valley. We've all built businesses of scale from nothing in Silicon Valley. I've known all of the individuals for way longer than I've been involved with Wal-Mart. It's a little bit fun. I think we should be competitive. We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do. It doesn't mean we're not out mixing it up on a regular basis and having a little fun in the process.

Part of that competition is for employees. How do you sell top talent on Wal-Mart and @WalmartLabs versus more well-known tech companies?

That was one of the biggest questions we had when we first got here. One of the first things we did was define the associate value proposition. If you're a star in Silicon Valley, it really kind of boils down to a few things:

1) Come for the purpose. Help people save money and live better. It's not a business model, it's a purpose.

2) Come because you're interested in solving meaty, challenging problems. Strategic, technical, operating, organizational, financial, whatever. We've got 'em.

3) Come because you're interested in scale. We can solve those problems in ways that are different than other people can solve those problems.

4) Come because we're putting together a group of people both professionally and personally that is special and interesting.

Are those the things that sold you?

We created that verbiage after I arrived. So, I guess, subconsciously, I had to have thought that way.

There isn't an example of a company that was a leader before the Internet that is a leader after the Internet. So it's an intellectual challenge. It's a business challenge. It's a leadership challenge. I was looking for the biggest challenge I could find, and it found me.

What sort of debate is there on utilizing stores as part of your fulfillment network? You've got about 80 that you're using. How many is too many?

I often describe the supercenter as this fascinating ecosystem of activity. There's arguably very few companies that have the permission we do to sell everything to everyone. From groceries to tires, right? So you have this incredible beehive of activity. Don't mess it up. There aren't a lot of customers in our fulfillment centers. The solution for Wal-Mart is different from the solution for others.

Wal-Mart is often compared, unfavorably, to others. Especially online. Does that bother you?

There is no one else to compare Wal-Mart to. I'm still relatively new in the grand scheme of Wal-Mart. I think I'm still relatively objective about this. It's interesting that we are so quick to compare Wal-Mart to other people. If you took the names off the door, you'd write a different story. I'm proud of what we've done here. I feel really good about it.

If you have a tip, call Chris Bahn at (479) 365-2972 or email him at

cbahn@nwaonline.com

SundayMonday Business on 11/15/2015

Print Headline: Casually dressed executive positions Wal-Mart for online success

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