On a summer afternoon in Chicago, Margaret Garner, CEO of the Chicago construction firm Broadway Consolidated, took a ride to Chicago's poverty-stressed 37th Ward. Dressed immaculately in a multicolored blouse, black pants and red steel-toe work boots, she had an appointment with a field of dirt and dreams. Garner surveyed the 11-acre site, where an old factory had recently been demolished, and proclaimed the future: "This will be Wal-Mart No. 5,402. But I can guarantee you, it won't be anything like Wal-Mart No. 5,401."
Garner is the first black woman ever hired by Wal-Mart to build a store. In the summer of 2003, when Wal-Mart began looking at Chicago's West Side, the company went searching for contractors to build stores in the city. Wal-Mart was looking for someone who could lay down a solid foundation, both on site and in the surrounding West Side community of Austin, where high unemployment and high retail prices prevail and the labor supply, while plentiful, has a few dents in it. "The community aspect is not something Wal-Mart has typically had to deal with," says Garner. "Coming to a city and having to deal with ex-offenders, for instance. These aren't the sorts of problems that Wal-Mart typically deals with. They were looking to defer the risk."
Wal-Mart decided to rely on Garner's local knowledge, contracting Broadway Consolidated first to demolish the old factory and then to build the 150,000-sq.-ft. superstore that will employ as many as 300 people. Garner says that the work will produce between 150 and 200 construction jobs, half of which will go to minorities. Half of those minorities will be African Americans, including black men who often have the hardest time finding jobs: ex-cons. In a city whose building trades are dogged by allegations of racism and in which the unemployment rate for black men is 11.8% (double that of white men), those job promises are huge, and not just for the community.
In the past decade, the world's biggest retailer has been portrayed as a brutal giant, accused of wiping out small businesses, union busting, discrimination against female employees, employing illegal immigrants--not to mention the knock, vehemently disputed by the company, of being a low payer. But recently one of America's most embattled corporations has found an ally in one of America's most embattled demographics. No longer content to let its profits do the talking, Wal-Mart is trying to remake its image, in some measure with the aid of inner-city African Americans. The math is simple: Wal-Mart offers stores and jobs to poor black communities that are hemorrhaging both. Meanwhile, those communities extol the virtues of Wal-Mart, offering a buffer against the company's critics. Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott is well aware of what a business partner like Garner does for the company's profile. "I like the image," he says. "In one part of Chicago you have ... an African-American woman who demolished the existing building ... and her team, which is largely minority business subcontractors, is going to be building a new store."