The Helping Hand


Earl Sams survived the crash with prudent investing and was now particularly anguished over the founder's downfall. He could not help recalling the night when Berta Penney's burning hand had tightened on his as she whispered, "Promise me, Earl. Look after my Jim."

Well, he hadbelatedly. Sams unreasonably held himself partially responsible for Penney's misfortune. Somehow, he felt, he should have been able to avert the founder's charitable extravagance. Failing that, he had now at least put together a plan for the founder's rehabilitation albeit one fraught with danger.

The plan itself was sound. Sams knew that the bad publicity was largely centered in the East and would dissipate in time. Moreover, Penney's reputation and popularity remained intact in America's heartland, the heart of the company's constituency. So the plan was businesslike enough to dispel any aura of charity.

But Sams also knew better than anyone how stubborn Penney was, how willfully independent and proud. And so as he had proceeded with the plan, Sams had been flogged with apprehension.

And as the moment now approached, he continually reminded himself to approach the founder with the greatest tact. Otherwise, he feared, Penney was likely to blow up and collapse and perhaps never again regain his equilibrium.

The money had been deposited, and the time was at hand. Night had fallen . Other than the cleaning crew, the two men were alone in the 34th Street offices. They were meeting this late because Penney had not wished to be seen by anyone upon entering the building and making his way to Sams's office.

"Mr. Penney," Sams began . He, who could speak with ease at banquets, conventions, and congressional hearings, felt as if he could hardly breathe. "Many of the best men in this city are suffering terribly today."

"I know," said Penney, his dulled eyes lowered , his voice subdued. There had been no eye contact since Penney had slumped into the chair beside Sams's desk.

Penney! Once of the erect carriage , the firmest handshake, the most intense eyes! Sams recalled his first meeting with the little dynamo, in 1907. He was dazzled as he heard about the impossible number of men the founder would interview in order to fill a single post. Penney had said that he desired and demanded nothing less than the best men in the Westmen who would then have to prove their worth by working long hours at low wages . And he, Earl Corder Sams, had been picked and had proven himself, and now he was one of the nation's most prominent businessmen. All because of the man seated beside his deskthe man he felt he had failed.

Sams looked at the disheveled and haunted Penney. With temples pounding, he again heard Berta's feverish voice. His throat felt parched. He took a swallow of water.

"Mr. Penney," he began, "I have a plan for us."

The founder stared at the floor as though at a movie newsreel of himself being stripped clean.

"Mr. Penney," Sams continued , "you are an incalculable asset to the great organization that you founded and built. As a spokesman and symbol for the J. C. Penney Company," he emphasized , "you would bring this company great publicity and attention and respect. With press-coordinated store visits and speaking engagements across Middle Americawhere you are respected and reveredthere would be an avalanche of goodwill." Sams, believing everything he uttered, hoped that his words were not turning Penney off. "As such, at the maximum New York Office salary of $10,000 a year, you would be a bargain if you would resume your chairmanship of our board as well."

Sams tried to gauge Penney's reaction so far. But the founder had not stirred, his eyes still down. "I have something else to say and, Mr. Penney, I will ask you to please hear my words carefully on this." Fearful that at any minute Penney would come to life and walk out muttering scorn at even the idea of charity, Sams continued. "Many of your friends and colleagues have been in touch with me. These are men, like me, who are deeply indebted to you for providing them with the opportunity of a lifetime." He paused for effect. "Together, we want our chairman to again possess a significant share of his own company."

Sams took a deep breath and slid a check over to the edge of his desk. It was for $250,000, and Sams said, "They have contributed to a fund totaling that amount." Finally, Penney looked up. He stared blankly at the check seemingly without comprehension .

Now Sams managed a smile. "It was their wish, Mr. Penney, that you repurchase J. C. Penney stock. Our company is worth far more than its current stock price, and all of us are certain that the price will rise significantly in the years to come. And why is that? Because of you. Because of the Penney Idea and because, across the country, they will know that more than ever a Penney store is the place to look for the values so desperately needed in American households today. If we work carefully and diligently, Mr. Penney, these Hard Times can be good times for your company."

Sams took another breath and waited. He had done all he could to sell this moment. He braced himself. And then he slowly realized how much he had underestimated the distance the founder had fallen. Penney was a beaten man, every minute of his 56 years showing in the sag of his body and the pallor of his face. He looked at Sams with bloodshot eyes.

"Thank you" was all he could manage to whisper.

James Cash Penney was thus set back upon his feet. After three years he would cease taking the salary, and by 1940, when the company declared a dividend of $5 per share, [3] he owned 51,000 of them. But the going was rough at first.

As Sams watched Penney perform his duties conscientiously but without spark, he and others in the New York Office waited for a change in the founder. They waited for the old spryness and twinkle to return. They waited for the return of the rapid gestures signaling the birth of some new strategy or his famously urging the use of a better idea from someone else. And they waited. The founder did not improve in these ways.

[3] A superlative dividend. In 1940 you could eat in the Plaza Hotel's Edwardian Room for $5all day!




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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