Chapter 6: Socratic Method


The mail had just been placed on his desk. C. W. Coleman nodded his thanks and absently sorted through the delivery ”then seized a particular business letter and rose to his feet. He held the envelope up to the light and then headed downstairs to the sales floor.

The Unlikely Move

Coleman found Mil Batten writing up the ticket after selling a suit.

"Mil?"

"Yes, Mr. Coleman?"

"New York," said Coleman, indicating the envelope.

"New York?" repeated Batten with the most tentative of smiles as the manager handed him the letter.

"Mind if I wait?"

"No, of course not," said Batten. He looked at the printed return address on the envelope:

J. C. Penney Company
Incorporated
330 West 34th Street
New York 1, NY

And the typed addressee and simply worded destination:

Mr. William M. Batten
C/O C. W. Coleman, Manager
J. C. Penney Company
Incorporated
Parkersburg, West Virginia

He took a breath and held it, slowly tearing open the envelope.

Finally, perhaps, Mil Batten was getting on track. As he unfolded the stationery he thought of the irony. Named Most Likely to Succeed in his high school yearbook, Batten had been spinning in circles since he dropped out of graduate school two years before. He had worked and borrowed his way through Ohio State, where he earned a degree in economics with honors. He had also received scholarship offers to MBA programs at Harvard and the University of Chicago. This was in the teeth of the depression, 1931, and Batten chose Chicago because they offered $200 more than Harvard. But he never completed his first year. "MBAs weren't the credential they would become," he said decades later. "Also, while Chicago's a great school, I didn't think I was learning all that much more, and I was becoming anxious about my future."

Returning to Parkersburg, his home town, Batten's anxiety would not diminish until the arrival of the New York letter. Not that he couldn't find work. Unlike millions of men at the time, he was consistently employed and earned good enough money. "The problem," he said, "was that I was treading water. The jobs were either morally compromised or led nowhere. And I was in love and wanted to get married, which was out of the question until I could indicate some kind of future. But my prospects seemed as bleak as the economy."

So he finally made a very unlikely move.

One day Mil Batten stopped by the small Parkersburg J. C. Penney store ”not exactly the place where one would expect to find even a Chicago MBA dropout. But Batten knew a great deal about the Penney Company: as a teenager, he had worked at the Penney store 25 hours during school weeks and 60 hours a week during the summer. He had so impressed the manager that he received a standing offer of full-time employment after college.

What he had not learned about the J. C. Penney Company from C. W. Coleman and from reading in Coleman's library of Penney materials, he had learned at (of all places) the University of Chicago. Bored with reexposure to economics and other subjects he already knew, he once spent a week in the business library studying the Penney Company and the retail industry in general. He was particularly struck by three things. The first: Of all the major businesses in the United States, only Penney was rooted in strong ethical core values. The second: Apparently the top men at J. C. Penney were as highly regarded as anyone at General Motors or Standard Oil. And the third: While most J. C. Penney store employees suffered poor wages in return for fringe benefits, from the level of store manager on up the money could be better than at GM or Standard Oil.

Batten decided that he was willing to work long hours for low wages in Parkersburg ”if, once under the company's wing, he would be free to look for career opportunities lying elsewhere in the Penney world. Coleman not only agreed; he immediately got a letter off to John Keys, a personnel executive in the New York Office. Announcing to Keys that he had reemployed Batten, Coleman then praised his work ethic ; his touch; and, especially , his intelligence. He concluded:

But Mil Batten is destined for greater things than we can offer him here in Parkersburg. In other words, John, here is a talent for the Company to cultivate. So I say with confidence: put this man in a big store under a progressive manager and watch him go.

Break number one.

John Keys turned out to be Batten's second break. The personnel man prided himself on being a talent scout; he also had unusual patience and a sense of humor. Batten was sent on interviews with managers of two prominent Ohio stores, both of whom offered him positions that he politely rejected. "I didn't feel either of those men had much to teach me," he remembered . "Which was hard to say tactfully to Mr. Keys. And this was a time of longer and longer breadlines. So add guilt to worries about any future."

Even a big operation like the Penney Company with its then 1,500 stores could offer precious few management-trainee jobs during the Depression. Batten continued in the small West Virginia store for nearly another year before the letter he now held in his hands arrived.

He looked up at Coleman with a smile. "It's good news." Keys had written:

Dear Mr. Batten,

I believe that we have finally found a store and manager that will meet with your approval .

This was the large downtown store in Lansing, the capital of Michigan, that was managed by the remarkable Jack Maynard. Break number three and the biggest of all.

Batten was hired at a salary of $70 a month, $15 less per month than he had made part-time in Parkersburg before college. "It's enough to live on until you prove you're worth more," he was pleasantly informed by Maynard. After collecting his things in Parkersburg and bidding a grateful good-bye to Coleman, Batten stopped by the Ohio home of his beloved (whom he had met in college). "I proposed to Kathryn after speaking with her father," he said. "I assured them both that by the next year I would be earning $100 a month."




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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