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Five Questions for Coleman Peterson

December 15, 2005
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Coleman Peterson
Founder of Hollis Enterprises and former chief people officer of Wal-Mart

Two years ago, Coleman Peterson held the human resources reins of the world’s largest private employer. He retired after 10 years at Wal-Mart, and now has time for golf on Thursdays in a new life that includes consulting through his firm Hollis Enterprises in Bentonville, Arkansas, and sitting on the corporate boards of J.B. Hunt Transport Services and the ServiceMaster Co., whose divisions include pest control service Terminix.

From a less-hectic perch, Peterson calls for a national plan to deal with soaring health care costs. He also touches on his record at the retail giant. Peterson spoke to Workforce Management staff writer Ed Frauenheim.

Workforce Management: Very few African Americans make it to the executive suite in corporate America. You did. What do you wish corporate executives would do to be more inclusive?

Coleman Peterson: Companies have to be willing to give more than lip service. They have to run the business the way they should run the business, which is to focus on people’s performance—and not on personality. In order to do that successfully, companies have to ensure that they have the kinds of systems in place that allow them to know who is there, what their interests are and to objectively evaluate everyone’s performance on an even plane.

WM: Headlines today speak of various workplace woes, such as companies defaulting on pensions. Has the historical pact between workers and companies completely disintegrated?

Peterson: I won’t say it has completely disintegrated. But it has changed. According to a recent survey, HR professionals think the most important factor in job satisfaction is the relationship with the immediate supervisor, followed by management recognition of job performance. But do you know what employees said was the No. 1 factor? Benefits. Do you know what was No. 2? Compensation.

WM: Do you think the federal government has a bigger role to play in health care benefits?

Peterson: I think it’s going to be very difficult for individual companies to make an impact in this area. There’s going to have to be some partnership between the private sector and a government initiative that relates to management of health care. There has to be some management of the escalating costs. And there has to be some central operation that allows for visibility into the true cost of care at different providers.

WM: What was your high point at Wal-Mart?

Peterson: A dramatic reduction in the company’s turnover. It was in excess of 70 percent annually when I joined, and we got it to below 35 percent. Our objective was to literally cut turnover in half.

WM: There’s a notion that you left Wal-Mart as a fall guy amid criticism of the company’s pay and benefits. Do you wish you had pushed for stronger benefits?

Peterson: On the contrary. I wish I had more successfully articulated to the market and to the naysayers the plans Wal-Mart had, which were comparable to those of others in the industry. Having already spent 20 years in retail, I told my family I would make a 10-year commitment at Wal-Mart. I joined April 30, 1994, and left April 30, 2004.

Workforce Management, December 12, 2005, p. 11 -- Subscribe Now!

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