"I always felt that despite the bother and expense, big meetings were good for the company's soul. The basic idea, of course, is to impart wisdom and sell programs to the troops. But there are other equally important values. Management gets to look at the whole organization. A convention teaches an executive, if he's smart enough to look and listen. You shake hands and listen and get a feel for things."
J. C. Dunn rose fast, moving from store to district to region and then on to a sequence of accomplishments in the New York Office. In 1980 he was put in charge of orchestrating the December district managers' meeting, the most important event on the Penney calendar. Every district manager and key executives from the regions and New Yorkhundreds of management associates would convene for a week at a Lakeland, Florida, resort.
On the last day of the convention, everyone would board buses for a banquet in Sarasota, followed by a full evening's entertainment at the Barnum & Bailey Circus's nearby winter home. Otherwise , it would largely be a working week spent entirely on the resort grounds. Afternoons were free for the associates to enjoy golf and other amenities (where most of the conversation would be about Penney business). But starting early every morning, there was a general meeting followed by a dozen breakout sessions to be attended in rotation. Presentations were scheduled for every lunch and dinner as well, with the company's top executives setting forth their vision for the coming year and with every division, department, and region following with multiple programs for the DMs to achieve those visions . (From experience, DMs arrived with an empty suitcase with which they could lug home all the handouts and practical mementos they were bound to collect.)
Altogether, it was a fairly typical corporate sales-type convention. But J. C. Dunn had a worry that was hard to define.
The coordination responsibilities that he and his staff shouldered were not the problem. Dunn was a cool and effective operator and was excited by the meeting's demands. What bothered him was something he sensed, something that he wished Seibert could address at this convention. Yet because he didn't really have a handle on the problem, the young man felt constrained to say nothing despite continued contact with Seibert leading up to and through the meeting week.
As it happened , however, the chairman had already been distracted by the same vague feeling. Seibert's difficulty, too, was a lack of definitionhis disciplined mind telling him that he was brooding over symptoms, not the real problem. Then, on the first morning at Lakeland as he faced the convention for his keynote speech, he received a jolt that would cement his uneasiness.
The year 1979 had been good for the company, a comeback over the past year. Seibert told Dunn the tone of the DM convention should be as relaxed and enjoyable as possible, a reward for the year's accomplishments. Hence, a December conclave in Florida with the circus wrap and professional entertainment for every preceding evening.
Seibert monitored one of Dunn's early meetings to plan the event, pointedly standing in back and staying out of the flow of ideas. At one point, Dunn said, "Since this convention will be more relaxed, what about the dress code?" He was referring to the fact that unless told otherwise, a Penney person would show up on a desert island wearing a suit.
"How far do we go?" came a quick reply. To an outside observer, the discussion that ensued would have been quite amusing. Nobody knew exactly what "casual" meant not wanting to go too far. Finally, Dunn said, "Well, why not compromise with something like a blue blazer and gray slacks?"
"Problem solved ," someone said, and agreement was reached. Soon word was deliberately leaked to the district managers. But Dunn took care to stress "something like" blazers , clearly granting leeway for any lightweight sport coat from brass-button navy to khaki to seersucker. Nevertheless, in another part of the JCPenney world a menswear buyer soon noticed an odd spike in blue blazer sales, a curiosity for this time of the year. What could possibly be the cause? He would never have guessed that the reason was what would become known as "The Blue Blazer Convention."