CLINTON — He started out pushing carts at Kmart in Des Moines as a teenager. Today, 23 years later, he’s co-manager of a store that’s part of the largest retail chain in America.

Dennis Purcell began his career in retail while still a student at Des Moines Technical High School. He participated in the school’s Distributive Education Clubs of America program, an internship program that provided students the opportunity to work in their chosen future fields.

Typical intern work isn’t particularly glamorous — Purcell pushed shopping carts in the Kmart store on Des Moines’ Hubbell Avenue. But through that internship, he began the process of learning the ins and outs of the retail business, and decided he had a real interest in the venue.

Purcell continued on with Kmart, working for the company for the next 111/2 years. He literally learned and worked his way up the corporate ladder, becoming a department manager, and eventually a district manager. By 1995, Purcell was a district manager for Kmart based in the Indianapolis area.

Then, Kmart went through a well-publicized period of restructuring, and Purcell was “downsized” out, as part of the company’s efforts to remain solvent.

But he immediately was snapped up by Wal-Mart, which recognized Purcell as a young man who already had a wealth of knowledge of the intricacies of large-store retail and what it takes for a store’s continued success.

Purcell began his career with Wal-Mart in 1995, serving as district manager to 18 Wal-Mart locations throughout the Chicago area. As the manager for shoes and jewelry, his job required constant travel to each location, ensuring departments were well-stocked and maintained profitability. After 21/2 years, he was assigned to the Rockford, Ill., district, where he spent another two years in a similar capacity.

Then it was on to Beloit, Wis., where he helped manage the first Supercenter in that area. He co-managed a store in Plano, Ill., then relocated back to Iowa, where he managed Davenport’s first Wal-Mart location, eventually being appointed manager at the newly-built Wal-Mart in Davenport. And it was in Davenport he met his wife, Kathy, a Quad-Cities native (the couple has three children.)

In 2002, Wal-Mart offered Purcell the opportunity to co-manage the new Supercenter in Clinton. Purcell jumped at the opportunity. His family had moved to LeClaire, and he wanted to ensure a position that wouldn’t require travel and time away from home.

Today, Purcell’s workday starts at 7 a.m., when he begins a walk-through of the 167,000 square-foot facility, making certain all 40 departments are ready for customers (the store’s inventory is re-stocked overnight.) Then he’s off to the morning management meeting where he, the store’s other two managers and the 10 assistant managers meet to discuss the tasks necessary to accomplish that day’s goals.

After that roundtable, Purcell and the other managers attend the daily store meeting — all department associates gather to prepare for the day and to share news of employee birthdays, anniversaries and kudos to top job performers, both departmentally and individually.

Purcell says much of the news in these meetings is gathered and shared by the store’s “Sunshine” committee; in stores of this size, with more than 340 employees, it’s vital to have committees in place to coordinate all the store’s activities and news. And with such a large staff, the store is a community within itself, with news of births, passings and all the news of major family events important to build and maintain those communal relationships.

Any “feature changes” (changes in featured merchandise displays) and “freight flow” are discussed with the associates. Purcell points to freight flow — keeping stock moving in and out of the store — as the biggest challenge of his position. The store’s inventory, he points out, is dictated by the home office in Bentonville, Ark., and reflects what they determine is needed at each location.

Therefore, the challenge for Purcell and his colleagues is to market their inventory effectively, while at the same time meet the demands of the consumers. It may require “stock balancing” with another Wal-Mart, where stock is shared between locations. Or, it might mean a manager or associate approves an “ad match,” where an item is sold to a customer who brings proof of a competitor’s lower advertised price.

Item prices do vary, he adds, from one Wal-Mart to another, based on each store’s quantity and demand on a particular item. The district manager gives the store management a total monetary reduction amount, and the managers have the autonomy to decide what items could benefit from a price discount and how much.

The store may do an “item locate” for a customer, finding what they need within a 150-mile radius, or a 24-hour hold. And items in a Wal-Mart warehouse may take only two to three days to arrive, while “assembly items,” those coming directly from a manufacturer, may take two to three weeks before they’re in the customer’s hands. In the end, it’s all about stock movement and meeting the customer’s needs.

And with that emphasis on customer satisfaction, Purcell must deal with the occasional angry customer. Purcell says he never takes personally the words of an agitated customer — they’re frustrated, he says, and often their not-so-pleasant mood may be the result of something completely unrelated to the store. His goal is to make sure their complaints are heard and that they remain a satisfied customer.

Then there are the occasions when stock moves a little too quickly, in the form of shoplifters. It’s up to Purcell and store security to detain sticky-fingered suspects until police arrive.

At the end of his 15-hour day, Purcell can take off the many hats he has to wear throughout a typical shift and experience a sense of accomplishment. He says the biggest perk of his job is the variety of people he meets daily, be it employees or customers. And Wal-Mart, he adds, is supportive when it comes to time away from his job.

Self-described as “a huge race fan,” Purcell gets the occasional day off to attend races, or spend time with his wife and children. All in all, Dennis Purcell’s life today is a far cry from those days pushing carts in that Kmart parking lot in Des Moines.