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Connect, December 2011 - Alumni: Charles Holley - Wal-Mart Stores, Inc - EY - United States

Charles HolleyShopping for innovation

Charles Holley,
Wal-Mart Stores, Inc
  Charles Holley  
  Current position:
Chief Financial Officer, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
  Last EY office:
Fort Worth, Texas
  Born in:
Dallas, Texas
  Board/community involvement:
Board of Directors, Cancer Challenge of NW Arkansas; Advisory Board, McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin; Board of Trustees, National First Tee Foundation
  Career highlights:
In 1994, as CFO of Walmart’s newly formed International division, helped launch the retailer’s business outside of the US. Within eight years, International revenues exceeded US$42 billion; as EVP of Finance and Treasurer, successfully led Walmart through the 2008 financial crisis, helping Walmart remain one of the few non-financial companies to maintain its solid “AA” credit rating.
  Most recent read:
What Got You Here, Won't Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

Growing up in Texas and with a father in the oil business, EY alum Charles Holley says there was always a certain expectation that he'd follow in his dad's footsteps. Instead, Holley set out to become a dentist. In the end, he became Chief Financial Officer of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the largest company on the planet.

Holley is a second-generation University of Texas Longhorn. He loves the school and is even more passionate about its football team. But when he entered UT as a future dental school student, he soon learned that he and biology didn't get along very well.

However, he did discover a love for numbers, and Holley eventually switched his major to accounting.

A career-defining moment

Upon graduating, Holley interviewed with all the then-Big Eight and ultimately joined EY in 1980 in the Fort Worth office. He had a strong desire to build his international experience and in the spring of 1983, the young audit senior may have gotten more than he bargained for.

One day, a partner called asking Holley if he was interested in working on an account in Jakarta, Indonesia. “Oh, and I need to know by tomorrow,” said the partner. A few weeks later, Holley found himself half a world away in a “very foreign and difficult environment” with responsibility for auditing a US$1 billion new addition to a natural gas plant. “I really didn’t know what to do,” recalls Holley.

I finally said to myself, “I just have to figure this out. And so I figured it out.” Looking back, Holley sees that time as one of the most formative in his career.

Holley stayed with EY another eight years before joining Tandy Corporation (predecessor to RadioShack Corporation) as head of international accounting and finance. He quickly rose through the ranks and was soon asked to move to London to manage the company’s European Memorex division.

Once again, Holley found himself over his head. “We had just lost our managing director, I had not operated a company before and we were losing several hundred thousand dollars a month,” he says. But, drawing on the confidence gained during his Jakarta days, Holley managed to turn things around.

Within six months, the division was making as much as it was previously losing — an achievement of which Holley is rightfully proud.

From Chelsea to Bentonville

Two years later, in 1991, Tandy divested all its non-retail businesses, including Memorex. Sitting in his Chelsea flat one night, Holley received an unexpected call from (retired partner) Turner Almond, one of Holley’s mentors and former EY colleagues. Almond told Holley that a fast-growing retailer called Walmart was “going international” and needed someone with Holley’s background. Would he be interested?

After three interviews, Holley became convinced that Walmart was serious about its global ambitions. Even though he had only been in a Walmart store once, in 1994, Holley took the job as International CFO and left London for Bentonville, Arkansas, Walmart’s home base.

Immediately, Holley got to work on plans to grow Walmart in places like Brazil, Argentina and China. “The idea was to go from zero to US$12 billion internationally in five years and I said ‘Are you kidding me?’” reflects Holley. In fact, by the time he left the position eight years later, Walmart International was doing US$42 billion and now surpasses the US$100 billion mark.

Early lessons in lowering costs

Over the years, Holley has held a number of key positions with Walmart, culminating in his being appointed CFO of the corporation in November 2010. Holley attributes much of his success at Walmart directly to his EY days. He tells the story of his former Office Managing Partner, James Ivy (retired), who came to Fort Worth to “basically get us operating at a higher level.”

In the process of lowering costs and boosting productivity, Holley watched the Fort Worth office rise to one of the highest-performing offices in the firm. “I didn’t learn to be a value provider at Walmart,” states Holley matter-of-factly, “I learned that at Ernst & Young.”

Holley likens his Walmart experience to Ernst & Young in another way: “Walmart is so many businesses wrapped up in one — we’re among the world’s largest pharmacies, the largest logistics businesses, the largest real estate businesses and so on. You’re exposed to so many things here, and that’s much like the Big Four if you think about it.”

A match made in (alumni) heaven

In addition to the tutelage from James Ivy and Turner Almond, Holley credits the mentoring he received from fellow alumni Steve Hahn (former senior manager) and Al Stephens (retired partner). While an Ernst & Young manager, Holley also recalls competing with coworker Gary Kelly (current Chairman and CEO, Southwest Airlines) for UT campus recruits. “I was recruiting for Fort Worth and Gary for Dallas.

I’d just about have a recruit lined up and Gary would then sell him or her on the big city,” Holley laughs. While frustrating at the time, Holley says he and Kelly are now great friends, serving on the Dean’s Advisory Board for the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas together.

But it’s a non-EY alum who has perhaps played the biggest role in Holley’s life. In 1994, Holley was 38, still single, living in London and “pretty much married” to his career. That is, until he attended a 20-year high school reunion. There, he reconnected with a former classmate, Shannon. A romance developed and they were married two years later.

Despite his stunning career achievements, Holley has a simple outlook on life: “Stay humble, be patient, stay focused and stay positive.” It’s not always easy, he admits, but in the end, that’s what leads to success.

A 'multi-channel' approach

“Providing competitive pricing and value to customers isn’t just about cost cutting,” says Walmart CFO Charles Holley. “It requires a lot of innovation.” In addition to its more than 8,000 brick-and-mortar stores, Holley says the company is constantly assessing new ways to deliver to customers in the digital age.

Walmart’s approach is something Holley refers to as “multi-channel.” Through one of these channels, called Site-to-Store, Walmart customers can price, research, order and pay for a product online, and then pick it up at their local Walmart (often, that same day). “The problem with internet shopping,” says Holley, “is that you don’t typically have your purchase in your hand within a day or two of when you order it.

With Site-to-Store, you usually can.” While Holley sees Site-to-Store as a clear competitive advantage for Walmart, and therefore one of its most significant strategic focuses, he’s not standing still. “The one thing for sure about marketing via the internet or through social media such as Facebook is that whatever is there today … will very likely be different tomorrow.” .

December 2011

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