The Sins of the Father

The Sins of the Father

Back in May I visited Bentonville, Arkansas, following my trip to Little Rock to check out Allied Cycle Works. I figured if I was going to be in Arkansas I owed it to myself to go check out the trail system being built there. I mean, I’d heard it was that good. I’ll admit that initially I wasn’t sure what to think of trails built by Walmart profits.

It’s hard to describe what Walmart has done to small towns across the country as anything other than vampiric. I watched how the downtown of Greenfield, Massachusetts, was gutted seemingly overnight following the opening of a Walmart in town. My town, Northampton, told Walmart to take a hike, and the downtown there is still a vibrant place sporting dozens of small businesses.

So between the way that Walmart’s low prices have killed thousands of small businesses that were the life blood of communities everywhere, and the fact that their management has seen fit to pay the bulk of their employees subsistence wages, the corporation has exacted a toll on the American populace that has made them fabulously wealthy. It’s stomach turning to a great many people.

With the announcement that RZC Investments has bought Rapha, there’s been considerable blowback in the cycling community from one-time Rapha fans conflating RZC with Walmart itself. That conflation, unsurprisingly, has resulted in many people announcing that they will no longer purchase Rapha products because of how Walmart behaves in the market.

So while I have a problem with how Walmart does business, it’s fair to ask what the reasonable response is to a business owned by heirs of the Walmart founder. This is a business with no actual ties to Walmart. RZC isn’t a subsidiary of Walmart. It’s not a PR move to try to make Walmart look a little less gluttonous.

RZC Investments is owned by Steuart and Tom Walton. As grandsons of Sam Walton, there can be no denying that they have benefitted from Walmart, right? That’s where they got their money. However, any money that RZC earns will do nothing to further the business interests of Walmart. It’s also true that they don’t work for Walmart and aren’t responsible for the business practices formulated by their forebears.

Consider that whatever money they have to spend on acquiring cycling companies is money that has already been earned—no matter how we may feel about how it was earned. That money is in their bank account. They are going to do something with that money. They could be spending it on hookers and blow, or golf, or playing the stock market. Instead, they are investing in cycling.

I assume that their families probably encouraged them at some point to put their money into the stock market rather than cycling. Given how corrosive Wall St. has been to much of the United States, choosing cycling over the Dow Jones is a net good for the world.

I think we can agree the larger issue here seems to be one of morality, so I decided to consult the bible.

In the Old Testament, Moses said, “He visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children” (Exodus 34:7).  That is, the children were made to pay for the crimes of the father. If your dad was a bad man, you had no future. This is an idea that persisted into the Middle Ages. The Germans had a word for it: Sippenhaft.

Sippenhaft is a kind of guilt by association, that if you are a family member of a criminal, you can be pursued for restitution for your ancestor’s crimes. The concept died out after the Middle Ages, but then was revived in the early 20th century by … the Nazis. Speaking of Nazis, my German friends are—to a person—horrified by what their country did in World War II. They are fine people who don’t subscribe to what the Nazis did. Also, we seem to have forgiven Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche for their efforts during the war. So there’s that.

But back to the bible, which also contained, as usual, a completely contradictory idea. In Deuteronomy 24:16 it states, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.” It is this idea that found its way into American jurisprudence, that we are each responsible for our own actions, personal injury attorneys notwithstanding. 

I’m fortunate that when I look back on my father’s career, he is a man of great integrity and universal respect. I should be so lucky to be as well regarded. However, my father and I are significantly different people. Had his business practices been less ethical, or even unlawful, I’d want a chance to make my own way in the world and to demonstrate that not everyone from my family was driven by darker urges.

Tom and Steuart Walton are not the people who have made the driving decisions at Walmart. From everything I’ve learned, they are committed to cycling in a big way, from directing the family foundation to buy land and build trails on it, to investing in cycling companies. They deserve a chance to make their way in the world and to be judged on the merits of the choices they, not their parents, make.

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  1. Road Mike

    Sorry, but that’s a naive reading of Exodus. Apparent contractions and paradoxes are suggestions to the reader to think a little more carefully and ask some questions. There’s no need to take a dig at scripture to make your point. In fact, if you want to invoke these same or similar verses more thoughtfully, you could strengthen your argument.

  2. Chris

    Bible aside, I agree with your point overall.

    They’ve done good things for cycling in Arkansas, which is good for tourism, which is good for the local economy.

    And Rapha has also done good things for cycling overall, bringing new people and new money into the sport.

    So I’m all up for this.

  3. Tom Moore

    I am sure that the new owners of Rapha are going to follow in Rapha’s/Walmart’s footsteps by using low wage workers to make their high price goods. I wonder how soo we will see Rapha goods in Walmart.

    1. Matthew Makarewcz

      We will never see Rapha goods in Walmart. I for one will never buy Rapha because I simply can’t afford even a pair of their socks. I don’t care who owns them.

      By the way, Walmart has either purchased, or in the process of purchasing, Moose Jaw the outdoor brick and mortar and web retailer.


  4. Gummee

    It takes 2 to tango… There’s no buyers without sellers and vice versa.

    Whether the Walton guys can make a go of it is TBD. Guess we’ll see.

  5. Grouty

    How do you know that they are not guilty of the same type of business practices that wallyworld has used to create so much misery? Do you know them personally? Have you investigated RZC and the Walton scions to any degree or just regurgitating what you’ve been told, bolstered by unfounded conformational bias? As far as using the book of magical thinking to present your case, allow me to counter with another ism. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Investment groups don’t buy companies to “give back”, they buy them to exploit them for more profit, period. Rich people selling products to the privileged few who can afford them, made by workers who cannot. What is the average income of a road cyclist these days anyways?

  6. Ethan

    I agree with Mike that the invoking the Bible in this situation was probably the wrong choice, however your argument is logical and I am happy you have made it. I hope that you can persuade others that there is no reason to boycott Rapha due to the new ownership. I personally have no intention of buying their products due to price vs quality, however this infusion of cash is certainly a good thing for cycling.

  7. Matt

    First – get off the “religion has no place at RKP” – I’m not religious, but damn people…can’t you roll with anything?

    Second – I don’t buy Rapha because I don’t agree with their ethos of “what” cycling is, or should be….

    Third – I don’t shop at Walmart for, what to me, are obvious reasons.

    Fourth – Yay for the Walton kids and their investment and love of cycling, and to go back to my fist point, can’t you all think of anything that might – MIGHT – be good about their investment in cycling besides the idea that it’s going to end up on Walmart shelves?

    Good post RKP
    geese I hate cycling elitists sometimes…

  8. Hoshie99

    In retail, it appears all about brand, specialization and e-commerce on one end (Bonobos – mid to high end mens clothing brand recently bought by the big W) or scale players (Amazon, W, etc) on the other.

    What Rapha does have is a clear brand, growing topline revenue, and a differentiated position in an interesting high income market. The price did seem expensive as that’s a very strong multiple so it’s likely a really good deal for the Rapha investors and management. Cycling is definitely a niche, so curious what the plan is.

    I really don’t know enough about the cycling market to know what the savvy move is but it’s interesting to think about. Thoughts?

  9. TomInAlbany

    I refuse to sentence someone for the sins of their father. But, they took the money. They could walk away and build their own gig. There’s an implicit acceptance of the business practices in their use of the money. Likely, though, they probably never thought about it.

    I’ve never bought Rapha and never considered it. For the riding I do these days, and my current budget, I’m fine with more affordable brands. And, I love a good sale!

    I’m a bit shocked at the religious intolerance some commenters have shown in the responses. Padraig used his background as references, as all good writers do. The fact that he shared the source(s) of those viewpoints is what is irritating some people. I think those that are irritated need to get over themselves. Sure, it’s hard not giving a crap about religion in a pretty religious country where people will gladly tell you that ‘you’re going to hell’. That said, the amendment that we usually line up behind only guarantees freedom FROM a nationalized religion. You are not guaranteed freedom from ‘exposure’ to religion.

  10. Brad

    You have to love a world where Rapha is bought by Walmart (in some extended sense), creating an existential hand-wringing for literally dozens of cyclists. I have to think if one were really concerned about the plight of small business and worker-exploitation there are lot of other places you could look in the industry (and your bike) to make a statement… I wonder if any of those giving up on Rapha now own an iPhone? Disclosure: I have never owned (or frankly desired) anything from Rapha.

    FWIW, seems like a pronounced up-tick in social views interwoven into RKP posts since the election… I suppose it’s a sign of the times but it’s nice to have a place to go where you can leave that stuff behind for awhile.

    1. Author

      We’ve always commented on society and social norms when they intersect with cycling, but since the election I’ve made a conscious effort to make sure there’s really no political talk, not because we don’t have strong feelings on it, but because the outlook of this site makes our political preference abundantly obvious.

  11. Timbo

    As an Arkansawyer who avoids Wal-Mart like the plague while conflictedly enjoying Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges and these Waltons’ strong commitment to cycling, I’m torn about the Rapha deal. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

    From an Arkansawyer concerned about the increasingly extreme religiosity infiltrating every aspect of public life, to the commenters above critical of the biblical references in this article: get over it. Quoting a couple of bible passages is not the same thing as religious indoctrination. No matter one’s religious beliefs, the bible is undeniably a work of historically relevant literature. Knowing what it says about a topic just makes you a more fully informed citizen, similar to the ways in which we draw on Greek mythology or Rumi’s poetry to give context to current events. Be amused by the internal inconsistencies, but don’t try to pretend that it’s irrelevant to understanding our idea of what constitutes right and wrong.

    If you want to see an example of true, over-the-top religious indoctrination, then come down here to meet some of our state senators hell-bent on getting a 10 commandments monument installed on our capitol grounds. (They succeeded once, but then someone knocked it over with a Dodge Dart in the middle of the night.)

  12. GeorgeL

    What confuses me about this deal is that the strong brand that Rapha has built is now linked to the strong brand of Walmart. The strength of these two brands stretch in completely opposite directions: as is well-chronicled in this discussion, Walmart represents cheap, mass-produced products and business practices that hurt workers and the small towns they live in. Rapha is strongly curated, luxury, and exclusive, and sells things to upper-middle class people with fairly deep pockets. Thus, the deal strikes me as being extremely tone-deaf to the U.S. market because of what Walmart represents (hence all the “can’t wait to see Rapha kit in my local Walmart” jokes). That seems like a huge miss to me because it instantly alienates a vast portion of Rapha’s customer base, who likely do not shop at Walmart.

    So whether we think Tom and Steuart Walton are nice people, are different from their (grand)parents, or do great things for the cycling community in Arkansas is irrelevant. They got their money from Walmart, so now the two brands are irrevocably linked, which cheapens Rapha’s brand and likely makes it less appealing to a large swath of its customers (including myself). Those in the Rapha boardroom that signed off on this clearly do not understand it’s U.S. customers.

  13. Art

    The thing is they don’t need to invest any of their money. They have more than they and generations of their children could ever spend. I would imagine that $260 million would buy a lot of health insurance for their employees or pay back some of the massive tax subsidies they get when they move to a town. I know it comes across as sour grapes from all us non billionaires, but seriously these guys need to make more money?

    1. Author

      Try to bear in mind that Walmart’s employees aren’t RZC’s employees. As long as people see those two entities as the same Tom and Steuart Walton can do nothing right. Also, you might want to consider that the bike industry has been hurting and any investment in the bike industry is a good thing.

  14. robert

    At first I was surprised by this move but reading around I see that it is the E-Comm play at work here. I didn’t know Walmart had bought Bonobos. I knew about Amazon wanting to dominate all retail food, goods, electronics, etc. You could imagine a world without big box retail but with boutique retail where you went in to experience the brand and they fedexed you the products later. Whether or not this is more sustainable (packaging, shipping X 1000) than building any other non-sustainable idea, Malls, big box, strip malls, I don’t know. I know I like Main St. retail except for the fact that they never have what you want, save for my reliable Hardware Store that manages to save my A** weekly.

    We have had a lot of retail ideas in different generations, my gen had the Mall, and it served many functions but building one every 5 miles to have the same stores inside was ridiculous and you see the consequence now. Walmart hastened the demise of that by building yet another big box but just with lower prices. Now they can’t survive either and are laying the foundation for E-Comm as Amazon is doing.

    I know you absolutely need human scale retail stores, you need some personal service, but you also need quick access to all the available goods. It seems to me that this new generation of boutique retail supported by deep fulfillment ops might be a better way if we can get the packaging down, get fedex and UPS to switch to electric vehicles and support livable wages in the factories that make these goods.

    And in small towns that have had their retail decimated by all of this change, it seems they all get jobs at fulfillment centers picking and plucking until their knees and ankles give way at age 50 and then are on disability if they are lucky to get it. 🙁

  15. Shawn

    Let’s assume Walmart (or Exxon, Amazon, Apple, etc.) is evil but that the company itself, not the heirs of its founder, did something good. Should we turn our noses when “bad” companies do “good” things?

    A yes answer might be seen as an ends/means justification. But that’s a stretch because — despite the article’s arguments —
    “Walmart is a bad” is a questionable conclusion. What a yes answer really shows is that we credit the value of our moral superiority over the value of the “good” that has been done. That’s an insidious value system.

  16. Dizzy

    Wow Padraig, did you hit a nerve here! Or perhaps the jackpot, depending on your point of view.
    Oh, and please use any text, new or ancient, philosophical or historical, fiction or non-fiction, poetic or scientific, public or private, in your writings but the bible, “The Bible”…how dare you.

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