But He Could Never Manage a Store for Me

As a rising star, Mil Batten had arrived at the New York Office in 1940 to upgrade the companywide training program. To his surprise, one day Penney's secretary called to arrange an appointment for her boss to visit. In Batten's office.

"Any time," said Batten. "I mean, he can drop in here any time he wishes, of course. After all, he only founded the company."

"Oh, Mr. Batten, you certainly don't know Mr. Penney." "What do you mean?"

"He would never just drop in informally." "He's that formal?"

The secretary chuckled warmly. "Mr. Penney was born formal." "But I'm nobody."

"Ah, Mr. Batten. Welcome to New York." "Yes?"

"To Mr. Penney, everybody is somebody." Again she chuckled, now with a respectful edge. "Unless, of course, they prove otherwise ."

The secretary made the appointment and Batten hung up in a reflective study. "That's interesting," he thought. "So Mr. Penney is still that choosy about people. I should be flattered," he concluded. "And careful."

The next day the founder showed up at the appointed time. The meeting was brief. "I have heard good things about you, Mr. Batten. If there is any way I can help you, please don't hesitate."

"Thank you, Mr. Penney." "I mean it."

"I can tell, sir. And I won't hesitate." "Good. Welcome to New York." Batten found the chairman to be readily available and always helpful, a subtle savant with things to teach those who would closely observe. Ten years later, in 1950, while head of national personnel and assistant to president Al Hughes, Batten once again learned from the old man. Batten had always valued the founder's company and continued trying to carefully promote Penney's wisdom to top management. Hence, whenever possible he coordinated his store visits with the founder's own travel schedule. And there was another reason. As he recalled, "I had learned, of course, that this amazing man almost always had some lesson to impart. And he taught by case example. He didn't talk a lot like I do, with the notable exception of skillful small talk at stores and business functions. But he could make an indelible point by revealing something that we should have known but were somehow blinded to. I can cite a good example, a trip we took together to deal with a tricky manager situation in Pennsylvania.

"The town was growing and we were building a much larger store to replace the existing Main Street store. And this kind of a situation can present a personnel and public relations dilemma. Should the manager of the existing small store become the manager of the new, larger store? Is he ready? Or can he grow into the greater responsibility? Or should he be comfortably removed to somewhere else?

"Penney managers always have to be civic-minded, and this Pennsylvania manager we were about to meet had been very active in the community for years. He had many important friends locally, all of whom assumed he would be tapped to run the new store. Therefore, if we brought in someone else, they might think that the Penney Company had humiliated their friend.

"This could cause trouble. The newspaper could cover the store opening negatively, and an editorial could castigate the Penney bullies from New York. Bad publicity and word of mouth could mushroom. Citizens' committees could organize to boycott the new store. Key holdover personnel could begin quitting. Sales could nosedive, and the hand-picked new manager could suddenly be looking at an extra year to make up for this disaster.

"That would mean the hardest year in a manager's life opening a storewould be rewarded by a low or nonexistent comp [3] check, so he could begin to crater. Meanwhile the cost of the money to open this store rises into the stratosphere. Since this isn't Neiman-Marcus and our margins are always thin, now it will be years before this store shows any kind of real profit. So what was the point? All that effort and expertise. All that time and money. Sheer futility. It could happen."

All this was on Batten's mind the next morning when the manager began showing them around the original Main Street store. First they were introduced to the store associates . The manager was not good with names , a Penney specialty, and several times the founder had to ask an associate, "And your name is?" Midmorning, after shaking hands with several customers in women's ready-to-wear, Penney asked the manager what had caused the department head's injury . The manager looked around at the cast on the woman 's foot and ankle and then shrugged and said, "Beats me." As they moved on, the founder looked around at Batten with a flat expression. Later the manager contradicted a number given by an associate at the hosiery bar. "Oh, no, no, no," he interrupted , turning to his guests. "We have to've done more than that because ever since the war when we couldn't get any, I've really stressed nylons." Just the slightest tightening of the hosiery lady's smile indicated that someone was wrong, and it wasn't she.

From department to department in the store, Mr. Penney continued to present the same expression to Battenwho was beginning to feel defensive, although the founder had yet to utter a word besides his effective small talk.

Just before noon, there was a session in the office during which the office manager and her assistant simply looked away as the manager pontificated about bookkeeping, inventory controls, and government forms. Then the manager took his guests to the Elks Club for lunch . On the way to their table, the manager seemed to wave at every other man in the room. After they were seated and had ordered their coffee or soft drinks, the manager rose, winked, and said, "Duty calls," and began working the room. As he approached his first targets, having no trouble with these names, his voice sounded a little too high and a little too much the hail-fellow-well-met, as though this were another performance for his guests. At every stop, the manager would always wave back at them, loudly making sure everybody in the room knew the identities of his distinguished guests.

Penney finally turned to Batten and quietly said, "I'd like to ask you something, Mr. Batten."

"Go ahead, sir." "What do you think of this man?" "You mean besides being an obtuse blowhard?" Penney smiled. "Okay, he's a calculated risk. And you're right, it wasn'tan easy decision. We weighed all the factors, including his position in the community. On balance, we decided he should still get the job," Batten elaborated, keeping an eye on the manager gladhanding his way about the room.

Penney listened carefully and then quietly replied. "That's interesting, and I'm impressed with the thoroughness. But he could never manage a store for me."

"I accept that, Mr. Penney, but the man is going to be the manager here. The decision is made. At least until he proves otherwise."

"Well, I understand that, too. It's the way it has to be, of course." With flat eyes, the founder looked around at the sound of the manager's voice.

"And that was all Penney ever said about the matter," Batten remembered . "Nothing more. Not ˜I told you so or anything else. Because, you see, the manager did not work out at all. So it was a long time before that new store was in the black. Penney had none of the input we had in personnel. Yet he could make a gut decision that was superior to our sophisticated process back in New York."

[3] Penneyese for profit sharing, in those days relating to a manager's direct accomplishments.

Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare

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