The Kiwi running Walmart

Last updated 05:00 26/07/2014
Greg Foran
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HIGH-FLYER: Greg Foran is the new head of Walmart in the US, just months after he was appointed to head the retailer's Asian operations.

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Kiwi businessman Greg Foran has been promoted to chief executive of the United States arm of Walmart, the largest retailer in the world - and is in line for a pay packet worth millions.

The 53-year-old veteran retailer has moved rapidly through the ranks of the multinational company since he joined in 2011.

Foran is probably now the highest-ranked Kiwi in international business, and has clearly passed on some of his drive - his son is an NRL star with the Manly Sea Eagles. Foran Sr was known as a martial arts enthusiast in his early days in New Zealand.

Foran said yesterday that being asked to lead Walmart US was "a privilege that I don't take lightly".

"I am excited to get started," he said.

The high-flying executive will be handsomely compensated with a base pay packet of US$950,000 ($1.11 million) and is in line for stock options worth up to US$4.9m next year.

That is quite a pay rise from Foran's introduction to retail in the 1970s, which had him stacking shelves part-time as a "night-fill assistant" in what was then Woolworths Hamilton North.

A spokeswoman for Countdown, formerly branded Woolworths, confirmed Foran had spent at least a decade with the company, moving through various roles.

"It's fantastic to see where his retail career has taken him and we wish him all the best," she said.

Foran then did a brief stint at The Warehouse during its ill-fated foray into Australia, where he was effectively second-in-command to chief executive Greg Muir.

Foran had also been eyed up as a potential successor to The Warehouse founder Stephen Tindall, but cashed-up his share options and jumped ship to rival retailer Woolworths Australia in 2001.

Tindall, who is attending the Commonwealth Games in Scotland and could not be reached for comment, was reportedly incensed at the time.

At Woolworths, Foran advanced through several senior roles, including head of supermarkets, and managing director of electronics chain Dick Smith.

He was widely tipped to get the top job when chief executive Michael Luscombe retired in 2011, but was overlooked in favour of Grant O'Brien.

Yesterday, O'Brien congratulated Foran and wished him all the best.

"Woolworths has long had a close relationship with Walmart and we look forward to continuing this into the future," he said.

After being passed over by Woolworths, Foran became chief executive of Walmart China within six months of joining the company.

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His move to the top United States role on August 9 comes just two months after he was promoted to head up Walmart Asia.

Foran has a diploma in management from the New Zealand Institute of Management, and has completed management programmes at both Harvard University as well as the University of Virginia.

Property records show he owns a property near the beach just north of Whangamata, on the Coromandel Peninsula, and a block of flats in Hamilton.

His parents, Pat and Glenda, are understood to be living in Tauranga.

In a recent interview with China Daily, Foran revealed it was his mother and father who first got him into the retail game.

"They knew that I was unsure of what I should do in terms of a career and instead simply urged me to ‘be the best that I could be' at whatever I did," he said.

"With that simple thought in mind I started full-time on a career that has turned out to be a wonderful ride."

Foran said he worked a lot during the weekends, but liked to spend downtime with his wife, Ondrea, as well as reading, eating "great Chinese food", and keeping fit.

He said the qualities he admired most were trust, compassion for others and the conviction to stick to one's beliefs.

JOB POSES MASSIVE CHALLENGES

Walmart is a retail behemoth, with a network of 11,000 discount stores and warehouses across 27 different countries.

It is not only the world's largest retailer, but the biggest public corporation and the biggest employer, with over two million staff.

Foran's role is particularly crucial, as the domestic United States market still accounts for 60 per cent of revenue.

Departing Walmart-US boss Bill Simon has reportedly left amicably and will stay on as a consultant for six months.

But it will not be an easy ride for Foran, as the US operations have now reported five consecutive quarters of falling same-store sales.

Sluggish sales in the most recently reported quarter to April 30 have been partly attributed to the financial struggles of the chain's low income customers.

Walmart was founded by the Walton family, who still hold more than half the shares and are worth a combined total of US$152b.

The global retailer has been the subject of several ethical controversies relating to its treatment of staff and suppliers, and its impact on the wider business community.

A recent review of more than 50 studies on Walmart's economic impact in the United States found that new stores often led to fewer overall jobs, and resulted in the demise of some local small businesses.

Walmart is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, where it has a market capitalisation of US$246 billion.

THE OTHER GREG FORAN LOOKS BACK

Foran was unavailable for comment on the other side of the world - but BusinessDay tracked down his namesake.

Nelson's Greg Foran is not related to the Walmart boss, but he is also a veteran retailer.

Astoundingly, the semi-retired Mitre 10 Mega manager worked alongside Foran at Woolworths during the 1990s.

"I'm about 15, 16 years older than he is," he said.

"I had a Four Square in Taupo for a short while, and he was bloody managing the Woolworths."

The pair then both headed to Auckland, where they found themselves working together.

"I turned up there, and there we were - two Greg Forans. He was Gregory Stephen, and I was Gregory Roberts."

The name caused some confusion, said Foran, although that was not always a bad thing.

"I got his pay one week, that was really good," he joked.

When Greg Stephen moved across to The Warehouse, Greg Roberts ended up mistakenly being sent 50,000 of his shares.

"I kept them for a month and nobody said anything. I rang Greg up, and said: ‘How're you going? I just want to thank you for the shares you gave me'."

"‘Have you got them you bastard!'," he says."

Foran stayed in touch with his counterpart, emailing him only a few months ago.

Looking back on the Woolworths years, he remembered him being a martial arts enthusiast, a team player and "a nice young guy, in those days!"

HALL OF FAME

While Foran might be the highest-flying expat executive New Zealand can claim at present, he is in good company.

Here are six other Kiwis who have made it big in the international business arena.

Chris Liddell

Joined General Motors in 2010 as chief financial officer and vice chairman, while the struggling firm was in the midst of an enormous government bailout.

Christopher Luxon

The Air New Zealand boss is a well-travelled businessman. Before joining the airline, he was president and chief executive of Unilever Canada, where he was responsible for a $1.4 billion business and 1500 employees.

Ralph Norris

Spent six years at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, where he turned it into the largest company on the Australian stock exchange. Also a former boss of ASB Bank and Air New Zealand.

Judith Hanratty

While not a household name, Wellington-born Hanratty was oil giant BP's company secretary for 10 years, and is arguably the highest-achieving Kiwi woman in international business circles.

Ross McEwan

Another CBA alumnus, New Zealand banker Ross McEwan now runs the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland, which was briefly the largest lender in the world.

Mike Darcey

Chief executive officer of News UK, the British newspaper publisher which is a subsidiary of News Corp. Formerly an economic adviser with consultancies including KPMG.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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