Wal-Mart investors launch governance broadside

Jun 03 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

The broadside launched against the governance and employment practices of retail leviathan Wal-Mart by some of the world's largest institutional investors is a stark reminder that no organisation – however large – is immune from the effects of poor corporate reputation.

In an unprecedented open letter to Roland Hernandez, chairman of Wal-Mart's audit committee, four of Wal-Mart's major shareholders from both sides of the Atlantic have expressed "serious concerns about reports of legal and regulatory non-compliance at Wal-Mart".

Between them, the London-based UK University Superannuation Scheme and F&C Asset Management, together with the Illinois State Board of Investment and New York City Pension Fund control about 11m of Wal-Mart's 4.2bn outstanding shares worth more than half a billion dollars.

"The frequency of the reports suggests that non-compliance with internal standards, as well as with laws and regulations, may be far too commonplace at Wal-Mart," the letter says.

"We are deeply concerned about potential contingent liabilities and negative effects on the company's stock price and reputation."

"Accordingly, we urge the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors to establish a special committee of independent directors to conclude a comprehensive review of the company's legal and regulatory controls."

The controversial retail giant has recently been fined $11 million for employing illegal immigrants, prosecuted for breaking child labour laws and faces one of the biggest class action lawsuits in history from up to 1.6 million present and former employees who say that the company systematically underpaid women and overlooked them for promotion.

The company is also embroiled in a high-level whistle-blowing scandal that is under investigation by an Arkansas grand jury after a whistleblower who exposed $500,000 in questionable transactions made to Vice Chairman, Thomas Coughlin, was fired.

Coughlin's later admitted that he filed false invoices to obtain reimbursements for Wal-Mart's anti-union activities. The company refuses to allow trade union activity among its North American staff and has gone to great lengths to fight attempts at unionisation.

"It used to be that we had to go to a third world country to find this kind of exploitation," said Ed Smith, Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Investment.

"Now, I am appalled and embarrassed to find these practices at Wal-Mart, one of our holdings.

"The company has a duty to mount the independent investigation we are seeking – primarily because it's the right thing to do, but also because such practices could expose the company to legal liability. The ramifications for shareholders could be disastrous."

But the ramifications for the company's reputation with large sections of the American public are already apparent in its bottom line. Wal-Mart's share price has sunk to a five-year low while vocal public opposition has scuppered plans to build new stores in New York and California.

Karina Litvack, head of governance at F&C told BBC News that "all of the scandals that erupted ... were clearly a result of a breach of ethics".

"The company recently has encountered real difficulties in expanding and creating new stores ... reputation issues can very much hurt the company," she added.

Ken Sylvester, New York's assistant comptroller agreed: "There's just too much coming out of Wal-Mart," he told MarketWatch. "We would like to know where the board stands on all of this and if it's actively doing oversight as it should."