John, the first of six children in his family, was a sickly child. Although he enjoyed reading and learning and going to school, he dropped out of school at fourteen to work for $1.25 a week as an errand boy for a Philadelphia publisher. He soon quit that job to become a stock boy in a clothing store–for $2.50 a week. During that time, he not only learned a lot about selling clothing but also wrote, edited, published, and distributed a little newspaper called Everybody’s Journal. It was designed for “young men who wish to rise in the world,” which was exactly what he intended to do.
When John was eighteen, he became a salesman for Joseph Bennett, a pioneer in ready-to-wear clothing. John impressed Bennett and advanced quickly. The two of them often talked about business and John’s future. Bennett recalled John’s saying that he planned to become a great merchant. But one day John asked his boss for a substantial raise, and Bennett refused. John calmly told him that he would quit and open his own store nearby.
Like all other businessmen, John wanted to make money, but that wasn’t the most important thing to him. A deeply religious man, John saw “every day [as] an opportunity to obey his religious convictions” and thereby please his Maker. He also wanted to “be of value to others besides himself.” He once said that his mission in life was “to do a full day’s work every day int he year, and to use its product for the uplifting and bettering of my fellow-men.”
John got this philosophy from his parents, who gave him his religious instruction. His father, who worked in a brickyard, set an example of hard work and frugality. His mother was a godly woman who taught her children to love God and read His Word. John especially recalled her teaching him “diligence, without which no man need ever hope to succeed in business or any other legitimate profession.”
Shortly after quitting his employment with Bennett, John was walking down the street when he heard music coming from a church as he passed it. He went in, listened to the choir, and gave his heart to Christ. From that day, he served a higher purpose.
In 1861, when John was twenty-three, he and his brother-in-law, Nathan Brown, opened a store on the corner of Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia. Through vision, determination, and hard work, they brought about a revolution in retail sales. John had an uncanny ability to foresee trends. Many people thought he was crazy to do some of the things he did with his business, but they worked, and soon other business were following his example. He realized that to be in the forefront of the industry, he needed to see the “fundamental needs of the people before the people themselves were consciously aware of these needs.” Based on this uncanny ability and his willingness to take on risks, he introduced new products, and customers rewarded his intuition by buying them. He also introduced new ways to care for and reward his employees, and they, in turn, worked hard for him and helped him earn great profits. By 1872, his store was the largest in the nation.
John’s story is so impressive that it can’t be told or even summarized in one short blog post. Stay tuned for subsequent posts in which I will share more about this amazing entrepreneur’s successes and example.
[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]