Wal-Mart regional VP Andy Wilson (L) giving a pep talk on corporate values at a Wal-Mart store, in 1992
Alan Levenson—;The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
By Lily Rothman
February 20, 2015

These days, Walmart is such a powerful company that this week’s news that it will give employees a raise could potentially change the minimum-wage landscape nationwide.

In 1983, when TIME first profiled the company, many readers might not have even heard of it. Though Wal-Mart was already the ninth-largest retailer in the nation and had raked in $3.4 billion the previous year, it had locations in only 15 states.

And the size of the operation — it now operates in 27 countries — isn’t the only thing that has changed. The news about the Walmart minimum-wage hike has been tied to an ongoing campaign for the rights of workers; like the fast-food industry, the company has acquired a reputation as a place where low-level employees aren’t paid enough. In 1983, however, employee happiness was said to be one of the company’s strengths:

Wal-Mart’s 50,000 employees, called “associates,” share in the company’s profits, earn bonuses for reducing shoplifting or suggesting merchandising ideas. “Their morale is fantastic,” says one Wall Street admirer. Each Saturday morning at 7:30 in the headquarters auditorium packed with new merchandise samples, “Mr. Sam” holds meetings with buyers and managers. Walton plans to continue expanding rapidly. The company will open more than 100 stores next year. At that sizzling pace, sales by 1987 would hit $10 billion. That would put Wal-Mart in a position to challenge K mart as the king of the discounters.

Read the 1983 story, here in the TIME Vault: Small-Town Hit

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