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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Wal-Mart Casts Its Shadow On Banks

by Dave Zweifel

I remember attending a "celebration" ceremony in 1987 where it was announced Wal-Mart was going to open its first store in Madison and bring with it its "famous" Sam's Club.

Area government officials, a few representatives of the business community and several civic leaders were there to cheer the announcement that the country's fastest-growing retailer (it was then No. 3 behind Sears and Kmart) was coming to town.

Up until then, Sam Walton's Arkansas-based corporation had concentrated on smaller cities, where its huge buying power could easily undercut the local mom and pop operations on Main Street and often quickly put them out of business. It brought jobs to many of the cities, but it also eliminated more than a few of them.

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As a member of the press contingent that attended that 1987 event, I remember an area community banker getting up in front of the crowd and effusively welcoming the Wal-Mart officials to Madison. He gushed at how happy the Madison area was to get a Wal-Mart and Sam's and hoped that the retailer would be building more in the area, which, of course, it was soon to do.

It goes without saying that the Wal-marting of America isn't quite as popular today as it was back then. Even the Chicago City Council, concerned about the corporation's reputation for exploiting workers, passed an ordinance last week to require Wal-Mart and other "big box" stores to pay at least $10 an hour by the year 2010 as a condition of opening stores there.

The council pooh-poohed the usual threats that the big boxes would leave Chicago for the suburbs, reasoning that if there's money to be made in the city and, of course, there is the workers ought to get a piece of it.

And I couldn't help but wonder if that banker who was so thrilled with Wal-Mart coming to our city back then would be so welcoming today.

You see, Wal-Mart isn't content to dominate just the retailing world. It's now trying to snatch some of the business that has traditionally belonged to the banks.

Banking representatives have been beating down the doors in Congress to get it to block Wal-Mart's bid to open a bank. The giant corporation has asked the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to give it a charter for a bank in Utah, a move that the bankers see as just the first. Wal-Mart insists that the bank will be used only to process debit and credit card transactions at its stores.

But bankers, particularly smaller community banks, are worried sick that Wal-Mart will start with the limited-service banks and eventually turn them into full-service financial institutions. Suddenly, the same folks who have fought any governmental "interference" with Wal-Mart's employment practices want the government to help them control what they now agree is a beast.

Wal-Mart could do to those community banks what it did to the locally owned hardware store.

Suddenly, it's not so fair.

Dave Zweifel is editor of The Capital Times. E-mail to:
Wal-Mart Casts Its Shadow On Banks


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