Perhaps no name in commerce is as well known as that of Wal-Mart, and Don Frieson (Knoxville ’90) has mapped his way to the company’s top echelon. Frieson recently moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, as senior vice-president in charge of operations in Wal-Mart’s central division. Previously the UT business grad was a vice-president and regional manager in Maryland.
The scope of his responsibilities is in keeping with Wal-Mart’s gargantuan reach: his division consists of more than 600 super centers, discount stores, and neighborhood markets. “We support over a hundred-sixty-seven-thousand associates in fourteen states,” Frieson says. “I have complete operations responsibilities for those stores.” His territory includes Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, and Arkansas.
After 12 years in management with Schneider National Carriers and an early-career stint with the Kroger Company, the Memphis native joined Wal-Mart in 1999. “I started in our logistics division,” he says. “My background in operations management has been invaluable in terms of thinking creatively and supporting changes to meet our customers’ needs.”
In 2001 Wal-Mart promoted him to vice-president of private fleet operations, where his job was managing the company’s truck fleet, one of the largest in corporate America. In that job, Frieson helped direct the company’s world-renowned distribution system, an essential element of Wal-Mart’s competitive edge.
“Good prices are the result of efficient logistics,” he says. “We always aimed to ‘touch the cases’ the least number of times possible from supplier to end-user.”
He says his rise to the top of Wal-Mart has been based on humility. “I’ll always be a country boy from Tennessee. Memphis may not be country, but I spent summers in Woodstock, just outside Millington–that’s country!”
Good relationships with coworkers and the ability to communicate “up and down” have also helped him advance, he says. He travels frequently to Wal-Mart stores in his division and says he enjoys visiting with sales associates: “I’m a member of the team. I try to make it easy for them to talk to me.”
Frieson came to UT on an engineering scholarship and later transferred to business administration. He dropped out of school for a while when his mother became ill but later finished his degree. He’s a member of the advisory board of the Department of Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism (in UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences) and says it helps keep him connected to the university. “It’s a great way to give back to the university and continue to live the UT experience,” he says.
Nancy Fair, head of the Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Department, says Frieson’s–and Wal-Mart’s–support benefits her students. “Wal-Mart has been very supportive of our retail program for many years and offers outstanding career opportunities for our graduates. We are so fortunate to have Don Frieson as a member of our department’s advisory board!
“Don is an excellent mentor for our students,” she adds. “As a representative of the world’s largest retailer, he brings important insights and networking capabilities for our program.”
Frieson says his time as a UT student offered him opportunities to mature and develop long-lasting friendships. “My undergraduate years at UT cemented a foundation for me to grow professionally. As most college students learn, compromise, sacrifice, and determination are career-building attributes. UT provided those experiences for me.
“I was exposed to people from all cultures–a microcosm of the real world. That experience helped build my ability to communicate. There’s no substitute for the exposure you get in higher education.”
His twin brother Ron, also a UT graduate (’81), recently retired as president of BellSouth’s Georgia operations, and he’s featured on page 29 of this issue.
As Frieson and his family get settled in Arkansas and begin the next chapter of their lives, it’s hardly the time to think about what the next career move might bring. But Frieson says he someday might like to be a part of Wal-Mart’s international operations and spend some time working abroad.