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The Wall Street Journal reports on Wal-Mart’s annual meeting last Friday, saying that when CEO Lee Scott spoke about social and political issues such as the environment and health care reform, he sounded “more like the ruler of a sovereign nation than a corporate chief executive,” and used his platform to “sketch out a broad agenda to improve customers' lives, and offered to partner with governments to solve social problems.”

“We stand ready to work with the next president and next Congress,” Scott told the attendees. “Leaders who want to get things done will see Wal-Mart as a partner." Scott said that the company has already communicated with the major party candidates in the current US presidential election, and also is speaking with government leaders outside the US.

The Journal notes that just a few years ago, such a stance “as a social steward and government partner for addressing the world's ills would have been unthinkable…Then the company was repeatedly criticized for skimpy health benefits, forcing employees to work overtime without pay, and prizing store growth over all else -- including neighborhood and environmental concerns.”

Scott conceded that to some extent, the current role has been imposed upon Wal-Mart because of its size, influence and ubiquity. But the general tenor of the discussion seemed to be that Wal-Mart’s leadership in these areas, compounded by a low-price image that seems perfectly in synch with an economy where people are looking to save money wherever possible, perfectly positions the retailer for strong growth during the coming years.

“'Saving Money' has always been a part of who we are. 'Living Better' is now a real part of our company too," said Scott in a prepared text of his remarks. "That connection, and our understanding of its potential, is making the difference between the great company we have always been and the even better Wal-Mart we are today … Wal-Mart is uniquely positioned to succeed not just in this economy, but in these times. And among retailers, we are the best positioned to lead in the world of tomorrow.”

KC's View:
Wal-Mart has had more than a few good years in the past, but it certainly begins to look like this could end up being the Wal-Mart decade. I have to applaud the company for being public-minded in its new approach to business and society…it doesn’t have to be, but it strikes me that few companies can afford to simply sit home at headquarters and count the money. They can’t, and shouldn't. There is such a thing as public responsibility…and it is good to see Wal-Mart embracing it on a number of levels.

Is it a perfect company? Of course not. Some will argue that it is far less than perfect, and that much of what it doing is all public relations. But I don't see it that way. I think management is working to straddle a very tough fence between private enterprise and public service.

And others clearly think so, too…