Pile it high, sell it cheap, and make the parking lot big the profits grow

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SAM WALTON, who died from bone cancer in 1992, was the personification of the American Dream. Born in March 1918 in Oklahoma his first entrepreneurial foray was from a bicycle - hurling newspapers on to front drives. After the Second World War he built a chain of discount superstores that transformed the retail industry and the suburban landscape of the United States.

Today Walton's creation, the Wal-Mart Corporation, is the largest retail operation in the world, with some 3,000 stores and almost a million employees. In 1985, Fortune magazine identified Walton as the richest man in America. To the end, however, he spurned all the usual trappings of wealth and power, keeping his headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and spurning limousines in favour of pick-up trucks.

This folksiness has been at the heart of Wal-Mart's success; employees, wherever they are in the world, are expected to join in regular in-store renditions of the company cheer. But the real secrets of Walton's success were price and location. The motto, printed on all Wal-Mart delivery trucks is meant in earnest: "We sell for less, always."

Walton opened his first shop in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. His expansion, thereafter, was supersonic. Britain is a prize the company has taken its time securing but already Wal-Mart is in Germany, where it is booming, and across Latin America. After a slight slow-down in the early Nineties, the company is growing today as fast as it ever has.

Sales beyond the United States grew 62 per cent last year to $12.2bn (pounds 7.8bn).

If there was a group who hated Walton, it was the defenders of the downtown Main Street. Because, it was Walton, more than anyone, who recognised that the future was in big shops built outside towns by highways and their junctions. During the Sixties, he would fly his own plane, buzzing towns where he had no stores. When he found the right spot he would land the plane, buy the farmland, and, hey presto, within a few months up would pop a new Wal-Mart.

The corny, apple pie spirit of Wal-Mart belies an operation that is nothing if not sophisticated. Only the Pentagon has more computing power in the United States than Wal-Mart. Nothing happens in any Wal-Mart store without the computers in Bentonville recording it, whether it is a rush on bagels in Brazil or a slump in housepaint sales during the Puerto Rican summer.

All that sophistication is directed at defending the revolution that was Sam Walton's: selling everything at a rock-bottom price. To this end, he cut prices wherever possible, from manufacturers' margins, from middlemen and from his own operations. The Wal-Mart formula now rules the industry and has been copied by every segment, from booksellers to DIY outlets. But it was Walton's invention and Walton's obsession. And Middle America will always thank him for it.