Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart
Sam Walton changed the retail landscape with a simple idea: Low prices. He wanted to be the go-to place for steep discounts for small-town consumers. He bet that volume would allow the retailer to get suppliers to cut costs—and boost Wal-Mart profits in the process.
Other retailers laughed at the idea when he first proposed it but today, Wal-Mart has more than 1,700 stores and is the world's largest retailer, with a market cap of $235 billion. He was big on customer satisfaction, improving distribution to keep store shelves stocked with what customers wanted. He was also big on employee morale, installing bonus and profit-sharing plans.
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"How can you leave a person like Sam Walton off this list?" a reader asked. "Walmart permeates the entire world these days. It changed the entire face of the retail business."
Walton stepped down as Wal-Mart CEO in 1988—26 years ago, which technically disqualifies him from CNBC's contenders list. (Click here for the list's criteria here.)
But his advocates say he was still influential—even after he stepped down as CEO.
"Sam Walton was still in charge 25 years ago," said Michael Bergdahl, who worked closely with Walton and wrote three books about him and his legacy. "He stepped down as CEO but not as chairman. He was actively involved, and he couldn't take his foot off his gas pedal."
As chairman, Walton ran the shareholders' meetings and kept an office next to David Glass, who succeeded him as CEO, Bergdahl said. "He had a co-CEO kind of attitude. He ate, lived and breathed Wal-Mart until the very end. ... His legacy continues to linger and it will continue to linger 50 years from now. "
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
Tim Berners-Lee is actually the reason you're reading this right now.
The British computer scientist invented the World Wide Web as a way to share information between scientists in universities and institutes around the globe, but it quickly became available for anyone to use. While Berners-Lee did not invent the Internet, his invention made the Internet searchable and accessible.
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