He Cut His Teeth on the Golden Rule

Although JCP is currently going through some tough times and people associate it with declining, often gang- and crime-plagued malls, such was not always the case. And it was not always known by the bland, nondescript monicker JCP. What originally made the company different from the modern company was the life, philosophy, and influence of one man: James Cash Penney.

Humble Beginnings

Penney was the seventh of twelve children born to a poor farmer/Baptist preacher and his wife near Hamilton, Missouri, on September 16, 1875. His parents wasted no time instilling in him their life values: love of God, honor, hard work, self-discipline, self-reliance, respect for learning, and the need to treat others as they themselves wanted to be treated.

Because money was scarce and his parents wanted him to learn its value, Penney began working when he was only eight. With money he earned, he bought his own clothes. He raised and sold livestock.  When he graduated high school, while continuing to work the farm, Penney got a job as a clerk in J.M. Hale and Brothers dry goods store. Just as he seemed to be learning the ropes of selling, he contracted tuberculosis and doctors advised him to move to a drier climate. He relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he quickly got a job in another dry goods store. Saving his money, he also opened a butcher shop, but it failed because Penney refused to treat one influential customer differently from his other customers.

Expansion

The following year, Penney accepted a job working for Callahan and Johnson, owners of a small chain of dry goods stores named the Golden Rule Store. The partners liked Penney’s honesty and work ethic, and they soon asked him to go to Wyoming to open a new store. Penney did so and soon used his savings to buy into their partnership and open his own Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, on April 14, 1902. He and his wife and baby lived in the store’s attic. (Interestingly, Penney’s store was located beside a saloon, a business the very antithesis of everything he believed in.)

Penney operated his store on several principles that demonstrated his philosophy of life and business: high-quality products offered at fair prices on a “cash-only” basis and proper treatment of both customers and employees, whom he called “associates,” a radical concept for the time but common practice among retail stores today. Soon, he had three stores in Wyoming. By 1907, Callahan and Johnson had sold the entire business to Penney.

Penney’s goal was not to have simply a chain of stores but “a chain of good men,” so he hired and trained associates carefully, ensuring that they worked according to his principles. By 1912, he had 34 Golden Rule stores, and their combined sales exceeded $2 million. He changed the name to J.C. Penney Company and moved the headquarters to New York, where he could be closer to the manufacturers of the goods his stores offered. But he continued to operate them by the Golden Rule. The company motto was “Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation.” By 1924, he had opened his 500th store.

Griefs

But Penney faced his share of trials like everyone else. He eventually overcame his TB. But his first wife died of pneumonia in 1910. He remarried, but his second wife also died in 1923. He married yet again, and that marriage lasted until Penney’s death in 1971.

Despite one grief after another, Penney continued steadfast and used the profits from his business to help his fellowman. He established farms to raise pure-bred Guernsey and Angus cows to ensure pure milk and meat for the public. He started a retirement community for preachers. He spoke widely and wrote numerous books and pamphlets to encourage people, especially youngsters, to work hard, live clean, exercise initiative, and treat others as they would want to be treated.

When I was a child and my parents took me with them to shop at the J. C. Penney store in Knoxville, Tennessee, I stared in awe at the huge portrait of Penney that greeted us as we came through the main entrance. It hang in a prominent position over the escalator that descended from the second floor. To me, he looked so calm, quiet, confident, and dignified, and even as a child I knew that he was successful. There was something different about him and his business. And I knew that my parents enjoyed shopping there.

Legacy

Penney died in New York on February 12, 1971, and was buried in a Bronx cemetery, but what a legacy he left! For many years, the store remained the same. But in recent years, it has changed. The name, the logo (several times), the policies, the atmosphere. We seldom shop there any more. Apparently, many others also have gone elsewhere because the company is struggling today. I wonder if it’s because they’ve lost the vision and rejected the philosophy of the founder. The company would do well to review his principles and make adjustments as necessary.

Here are a few things that this exemplar said that both businesses and individuals could benefit from.

  • “I do not believe in excuses. I believe in hard work as the prime solvent of life’s problems.”
  • “I never trust an executive who tends to pass the buck. Nor would I want to deal with him as a customer or a supplier.”
  • “It is always the start that requires the greatest effort.”
  • “Responsibilities are given to him on whom trust rests. Responsibility is always a sign of trust.”
  • “I cannot remember a time when the Golden Rule was not my motto and precept, the torch that guided my footsteps.”
  • “Success will always be measured by the extent to which we serve the buying public.”
  • “It is the service we are not obliged to give that people value most.”
  • “A merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fer from the competition.”
  • “There is in everyone more latent than developed ability; far more unused than used power.”
  • “Men are not great or small because of their material possessions. They are great or small because of what they are.”
  • “Determine to do some thinking for yourself. Don’t live entirely upon the thoughts of others. Don’t be an automaton.”
  • “We get real results only in proportion to the real values we give.”
  • “I believe a man is better anchored who has a belief in the Supreme Being.”

Recommended Reading: J.C. Penney, Fifty Years with the Golden Rule (Harper & Brothers, 1950) and Orlando Tibbets, The Spiritual Journey of J. C. Penney (Rutledge Books, 1999).

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

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2 thoughts on “He Cut His Teeth on the Golden Rule

  1. I use to shop at JCP all the time as a young man in the 60s. I still like to shop there but times do change. I think one problem stores have like JCP is that people will shop someplace else if they find a cheaper price. Today the price seems to be the only thing that matters.

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  2. Price is always a prime factor in any decision of where to shop. I know that it is for me. But I’m also attuned to customer service and the attitude of the personnel who serve me. I’ve sometimes knowingly paid more by going to a place where I knew that I would be treated with respect and they wouldn’t try to take me over or “sell me a bill of goods.” I’m especially perturbed by clerks who can’t calculate correct change! (A reflection on today’s educational situation–but don’t get me started on that issue!) Thanks for your comment.

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