Company airs video from Wal-Mart meetings

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wal-Mart's internal meetings are on display in three decades worth of videos made by a Kansas production company scrambling to stay in business after Wal-Mart stopped using the firm.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dropped longtime contractor Flagler Productions in 2006. In response to losing its biggest customer, the small company has opened its archive, for a fee, to researchers who include plaintiffs' lawyers and union critics seeking clips of unguarded moments at the world's largest retailer.

Those moments never meant for public display include a scene of male managers parading in drag at an executive meeting, a clip used by union-backed critics at Wal-Mart Watch for a recent advertisement castigating the retailer's attitude toward female employees.

"The videos provide insight into the company's real corporate culture when they're not in the public eye," Wal-Mart Watch spokeswoman Stacie Lock Temple said Tuesday.

Much of the interest in the candid videos is coming from plaintiff lawyers pursuing cases against Wal-Mart.

"The rarity is that it exists at all. Once in a while you come upon documents that are helpful in a case. What's amazing about this is that this company has a video record going back many years showing senior management in at times fairly candid situations," said Berkeley, Calif.-based Brad Seligman, lead attorney in a massive class-action lawsuit that alleges Wal-Mart discriminated systemically against female employees.

Seligman said one clip from Lenexa, Kan.-based Flagler shows Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton in the late 1980s telling the board of directors that not enough women were in management.

Wal-Mart denies it discriminates against women and in recent years has published its annual women and minority hiring statistics.

Wal-Mart said it is unhappy with the public airing of its video record.

"Needless to say, we did not pay Flagler Productions to tape internal meetings with this aftermarket in mind," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore said.

She declined to comment on any legal steps the company might be considering.

Flagler says Wal-Mart has no legal power over the videos because the two sides did not sign a contract when founder Mike Flagler was hired in the 1970s to produce Wal-Mart meetings and management conferences.

Co-owner Mary Lyn Villaneuva said the business continued producing and filming such events as shareholder meetings and an annual store manager conference until it was suddenly dropped by Wal-Mart in 2006.

Wal-Mart was about 95 percent of Flagler's business, Villaneuva said. The loss meant the company nearly collapsed. So it looked to its assets and realized that it could charge for access to its video library.

"We would like to go back to being a production company, but right now we're getting by as an archive," Villaneuva said.

Flagler charges $250 an hour for video research and additional fees for a DVD copy of film clips.

Villaneuva said Wal-Mart has offered to buy the video library for $500,000. But Flagler considers that too low for a collection they value at several million dollars. She said the two sides have been in contact off and on about a possible sale.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on whether it is in talks to buy the archive.

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