NEW YORK — Lee Scott, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores who is leaving that post in about two weeks, asked business leaders to embrace such initiatives as renewable energy, improvements to the nation's health care and education systems, and immigration policy reform.
“If we as a country want to get through this time, and position ourselves to prosper and lead in the years ahead, then we need to tackle the hard issues, and there is no better time than right now,” he said during a presentation to attendees at the National Retail Federation's Big Show here last week, in what he described as his last public speech as CEO of Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart.
“To those who say that now is not the time for health care reform, for new energy policy, for higher-quality schools, for comprehensive immigration reform: I say you are wrong. We cannot afford to postpone solving these problems.”
Scott said business leaders have an obligation to work on issues to improve society and should work together with government leaders and nongovernmental organizations to create solutions to these issues.
At times sounding like he took a page from the campaign platform of president-elect Barack Obama, Scott also called for “change” in Washington and an end to partisan rancor in government.
“Americans are tired of Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative,” he said.
Asked about his economic outlook for 2009, Scott said he believes the downturn could have a lasting impact that is difficult to predict.
“Fundamentally, I wonder if there are things that have changed in people's spending habits,” he said, noting that many people seem to “feel good” about giving up certain indulgences, such as movies and dining out.
“I am not sure there is going to be an immediate desire to return to consumption and debt,” Scott said. “They may return to that eventually, but right now I think their appetite is more toward living a little bit differently.”
He said he expects the first half of 2009 to be “extraordinarily challenging,” and he noted that during the summer, retailers' sales will face difficult comparisons with last year's economic stimulus checks.
“We all hope by next Christmas it won't be any worse,” Scott said. “If it is better, it will be modestly better. I don't see anything that tells me it's going to turn around quickly.”