One of my favorite Wal-Mart associates is leaving the company. Tom Coughlin, who came up with the memorable quote: “At Wal-Mart we make dust, our competitors eat dust,” has now turned into a little dust of his own. Based on filings the retailer made with the Securities and Exchance Commission, Coughlin and at least three other Wal-Mart workers lost their jobs over a controversy involving as much as $500,000 worth of “personal reimbursements” that were unauthorized. Coughlin, a former CEO of the Wal-Mart Stores division, and considered the #2 executive at the company, was asked by the retailer to leave because of his role in “the alleged unauthorized use of corporate-owned gift cards and personal reimbursements that appear to have been obtained … through the reporting of false information on third-party invoices and Company expense reports.” The false information on third party invoices may refer to the payment of kickbacks by suppliers to Wal-Mart employees. Coughlin had been with the company for 28 years, and was Vice Chairman of the Wal-Mart Board of Directors. Coughlin submitted a letter of resignation, which Wal-Mart also sent to the SEC, in which the veteran employee said, “I leave with warm feelings for the company and all the people who have made it great. I have appreciated the opportunity to serve.”
Coughlin’s “warm feelings” may have come from the “hot water” he suddenly found himself in. This is not the kind of ending to a 28 year career that Tom Coughlin expected, but Wal-Mart has shrouded the whole event by witholding key details about what Coughlin knew about the “false information” that was being recorded, or who blew the whistle on Coughlin. The result is just more eroding of confidence in the giant retailer, and a sense of “what else” isn’t Wal-Mart saying about the removal of the Vice Chairman of its board? This year, after 43 years in business, Wal-Mart set up an Office of Ethics. Unfortunately, it seems to have come too late to save Tom Coughlin.