Chapter 4: All Their Managers Are Like Masons


F. Scott Fitzgerald gave the "Roaring Twenties" a better name ”the "Jazz Age." But there was no roaring success less jazzy than sober J. C. Penney's climb into the stratosphere of big business. It was sheer, brilliant pluck . Consider what was accomplished in an age without computers and Harvard MBA models. In 1924, for example, there were some 500 J. C. Penney stores. A year later, the chain had grown to 674 ” roughly a new store every two days! Imagine the travel involved, the expertise in real estate, financing, buying, and distribution required.

To say nothing of the personnel and training needed.

Mavericks

Because the company continued to offer a rare opportunity for young men without assets, there was never a lack of applicants . The average future manager in training was comparatively well educated , usually with a high school diploma (at a time when the academic rigors were much greater in American public schools ). A few, like Latin scholar Al Hughes (a future CEO), even had college degrees.

The major common denominators, however, were modest family backgrounds and a willingness to work. Opportunities or not, in the early going nobody with a silver spoon in his mouth was likely to sign up for the overly long Penney workweeks. [1]

Another aspect of the manager corps in the first half-century was their often colorful early backgrounds before joining J. C. Penney. Today, the most promising Penney trainees might be recruited out of retail curricula at schools like Texas A&M or the University of Florida (never the Ivy League!). In the past, they might have come out of the nose of a B-17 or from a stranded jazz band . Two J. C. Penney officers and directors, in fact, had been classically trained musicians who took "temporary" jobs at Penney stores just to get back on their feet. The legendary Homer Torrey was one.

Torrey opened the giant Denver store in 1936 and turned a profit in three months. He was a complete maverick who got results. They hated policing him from New York, but they loved his profits. Torrey became a wealthy man in Denver and had no inclination to "advance" to the New York executive suite (he did so finally as a lark and was not well received by Penney traditionalists). A highly creative manager, he was always up to "something." In addition to the usual Penney merchandise, he somehow obtained and sold impossible -to-get nylon hose in wartime 1942, scarce cigarettes in wartime '43 and '44, and a cute two-seater airplane immediately after the war. [2]

In 1987, long into retirement in La Jolla, California, Torrey explained his start with the company.

Q: You began in Hood River, Oregon. Why there?

Torrey: I was 18 and played three different instruments in a good band. We played pretty big dates and made good money, except our manager left with the payroll and I was stranded, owing money all over town. This small Penney store hired me for slave wages . A lot of work, too, but I had run up a bill at my hotel and the manager there had locked up my instruments. So I was there until I got my first check, and then it's gonna be adios, amigo.

But the manager, who was a big man, dragged me down into the basement and said, "You lousy little jerk!" He looked like he was gonna lay some wood on me, so I said, "Well, Mr. Michael, maybe I can stay a little longer."

Q: You ended up liking Mr. Michael?

Torrey: A really good man, as most Penney managers were.

Q: How did you get to the next store?

Torrey: Mr. Michael recommended me for first man there, an opportunity. He let me go. That's where I met Mr. Penney. He was always on the road in those days, and one day he's there shaking my hand and then interviewing me in the manager's office.

Q: Did he ask if you smoked or drank?

Torrey: He did. And I said no, which was the truth ”believe it or not, even as a musician. I could tell that he did believe me, and maybe that's why he remembered me later.

Q: Remembered?

Torrey: Mr. Penney was how I got to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and really got ahead. New York had approved my transfer, but there was this little problem I had.

Q: Which was?

Torrey: I was really in hock to the store ”$350, a huge amount. Talk about being overstocked, my closets were bulging at home. Also, a little short? Just put an IOU in the basket and run it up to the cashier and back comes your money. IOUs went into a shoe box, and I had half the whole store's. So what to do? A big opportunity in Lancaster, but I'm stuck.

Q: Somebody suggested you write Mr. Penney for a loan?

Torrey: Believe it or not. I'm this little nobody. But I do it and say I'd learned a lesson. And then here comes his check in the mail with a note for 6 percent.

Q: That was 1922?

Torrey: Yes. I was 24 years old. That was right when the company really began to take off. I took over Lancaster eventually and, believe me, I'd learned a lot. I never had a debt problem and I never had an overstock problem the rest of the way. Not personally , not in store inventory, not in airplanes.

[1] Interestingly, however, during the 1940s and 1950s there were several independently wealthy or previously self-made men serving as big store managers. Perhaps they were proving or reproving themselves . Also, a Penney manager (and especially those of the bigger stores) held a coveted and respected position in the community while receiving very good compensation.

[2] A master at publicity, Torrey got wide coverage when the airplane was lifted (in pieces) into the store's fifth floor by means of a giant crane that blocked the whole street. Once, Earl Sams took a train all the way out to Denver to have it out with Torrey regarding his offbeat merchandising (including a Hammond organ played from a main floor balcony ). But Sams saw the crowds lined up to get into Torrey's downtown store, and he meekly turned around and returned to New York without saying a word.




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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