The NEWSWEEK 50: Michael Duke, Wal-Mart

As panicked consumers holster their credit cards, at least one company is benefiting: Wal-Mart Stores. Its sales were up 7.6 percent through November; its stock will likely be a rare one that finishes 2008 with a gain. And on Feb. 1, longtime CEO Lee Scott will step aside. His successor: Mike Duke, 58, a former department-store executive and logistics expert who's been at Wal-Mart for 13 years, most recently running its international operations.

Duke takes control of the world's largest retailer at a key moment. Wal-Mart spent the early 2000s fending off complaints over what critics see as a business built on low wages, poor benefits and antiunion activism. The company responded with an aggressive PR campaign, better marketing (its ads now emphasize how its low prices help families save money) and real innovations. It launched a program to sell prescriptions for $4, and it has devised environmental and energy initiatives that have won praise from outfits like Conservation International. "Wal-Mart has overcome [the criticism] by positioning itself as one of the solutions to the nation's problems," says Bernard Sosnick, an analyst with Gilford Securities. "Duke needs to keep the momentum going."

When it comes to sales, much of the momentum will come from overseas. With 4,249 U.S. stores, Wal-Mart has few parts of America left to conquer. Its future growth will depend on penetrating markets like China, which currently has just 215 Wal-Mart locations. Given Duke's international experience, investors will be betting that the new CEO can turn "everyday low prices" into a concept that needs no translation.

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The NEWSWEEK 50: Michael Duke, Wal-Mart | World