(Reuters) - Tom Coughlin, a former No. 2 executive at retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc and protege of founder Sam Walton, died on Friday, the company said. He was 66.
Coughlin joined Wal-Mart in 1978 and was instrumental in helping build the company from its humble roots in Bentonville, Arkansas, into the world’s largest retailer, with thousands of stores across the U.S. and overseas.
Coughlin was also at the center of one of Wal-Mart’s biggest scandals, resigning in 2005 after an internal investigation found he misappropriated as much as $500,000 in company funds. He pleaded guilty in 2006 to tax evasion and wire fraud.
The 6-foot-4 Coughlin was a towering figure who still held sway in Bentonville after the scandal. He had a consultancy and was sometimes called on by Wal-Mart executives for advice.
Chief Executive Doug McMillon circulated a note to senior executives about his death.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Tom Coughlin, who passed away earlier today. Like me, many of you worked with Tom over his more than 26 years with the company,” McMillon said in the note, which was seen by Reuters. “I know firsthand how much he loved our associates and this company.”
Coughlin had been in the intensive care unit of a hospital for several days, people familiar with the situation said. The cause of death could not be immediately confirmed.
No one at the Coughlin family could be reached for comment.
Coughlin began his career in the company’s security division and rose the ranks to hold a number of senior roles including head of the U.S. retail division and vice chairman.
Like Walton, his hunting buddy who died in 1992, Coughlin was known for visiting stores and speaking directly with rank-and-file staff. Coughlin was also a tough task master: managers were expected to stand at his meetings and were reminded of the virtues of quick execution by a quote from World War Two General George Patton he put on the wall.
Ronald Loveless, a retired Wal-Mart executive, said Coughlin had a knack for getting the most out of people.
“As long as you did your job, he would back you and support you, run through the wall for you,” Loveless said. “If you didn’t, he had no use for you. There’s another gentleman I remember just like that. His name was Sam Walton.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne in Chicago; Editing by Nick Macfie