Record expansion and leadership depth on display in Canada

Impressive. That is the best way to describe what a ballroom full of financial analysts and thousands of others watching via Web cast saw unfold Thursday inside a Toronto hotel ballroom where Walmart held its annual international meeting for the financial community.

Walmart is on its game in Canada, as it should be after operating in the market for 18 years since acquiring 122 Woolco stores in 1994, and it is in store for record growth this year on top of record growth last year. Doing things better, faster, simple and cheaper than the competition is the reason Walmart has produced a 15.2% compound annual growth rate in Canada and that figure should accelerate this year.

The company was already planning to open a large number of stores, but then the opportunity arose to acquire 39 leases of former Zellers stores from Target. As a result, Walmart this year will open 73 stores totaling 4.6 million sq. ft. at a cost of $750 million that will leave it with 380 units by year end, 280 of which will be supercenters. That is up from the current 330 stores, of which half are supercenters as a result of a U.S. style supercenter conversion program begun in 2006.

“We are in the infancy with our food business,” Walmart Canada president and CEO Shelley Broader said, alluding to the growth potential ahead of the company. “We have doubled our share of fresh in the last two years.”

Nine out of 10 Canadians already shop at Walmart, which equates to about 1.1 million customers daily where they shop for 100,000 SKUs. Broader noted that the company conducts exhaustive weekly price checks on 150,000 prices to ensure it maintains an 11% gap with competitors.

Aside from the ambitious new store expansion program and Zellers conversions, it was hard not to be impressed with the caliber of the management team making things happen in Canada: International division president and CEO Doug McMillon, International CFO Kathy Smith or former Walmart Canada president and CEO David Cheesewright who now oversees Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  Investors are familiar with these folks, and all are articulate, quick on their feet and accustomed to presenting to groups of skeptical analysts. Instead, it was Broader and others on her senior leadership team who stole the show. Broader in particular was very comfortable on stage and projected an aura of a confident competitor and an inspirational leader whose infectious passion is propelling Walmart Canada to new heights. In fact, listening to her describe the plan of action to drive growth and respond to questions from the floor, it became apparent that she is someone Walmart could turn to in the years ahead to assume greater responsibilities. This despite the fact that she has only been with Walmart for two years and there is plenty of heavy lifting in the years ahead to lead this year’s record expansion, withstand Target’s arrival in 2013 and drive further market share gains in food.

Of course exposing financial analysts to such as Broader and Canadian SVP marketing Emma Fox, chief merchant Lee Tappendon and COO Jim Thompson is a key reason why Walmart holds analysts meetings in international locations. The company needs to demonstrate that it has highly capable leaders driving growth in each of the countries that comprise the $126 billion international division.