I was sitting with my mother recently, both of us sipping tea as my two kids played in the other room, when I learned of a long lost interview she had conducted with James Cash Penney, the founder of JC Penney. The interview was part of a journalism assignment from college; her sister had worked for an executive at JC Penney and that connection enabled my mom to get a sit-down appointment with Mr. Penney. Mr. Penney was eighty-nine years old at the time and my mom was twenty. I asked my mom if she still had the interview. She did, and she kindly agreed to let me publish it on my blog.
The only reason JC Penney came up in conversation between my mom and me was: I had recently purchased a purple coat for my daughter from JC Penney and within a week, the zipper broke. Frustrated, I contacted JC Penney and it started a chain reaction of communications between JC Penney’s customer service team and myself that resulted in my full-throttle realization that JC Penney has GREAT customer service. From my experience, the Golden Rule still reigns at JC Penney.
Enjoy the interview – it seems like he was quite a terrific man.
The Golden Rule Brings Success
by Maureen A. Sullivan
November 30, 1964
On November 30, 1964, the new J.C. Penney Building at 1301 Avenue of the Americas in New York City, will open its doors “to serve the public as nearly as we can to its complete satisfaction.” This new building is truly the result of years of hard work, faith, and perseverance.
In an interview with Mr. Penney last Wednesday, November 25th, he remarked on the opening: “This is something that transcends any idea or ambition I ever had. It’s a result of the principles I started with.” Those principles centered around two words: Golden Rule. Mr. Penney’s whole life has been based upon the application and adherence to the Golden Rule: Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them!”
Mr. Penney’s career in the retailing business began in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. After working for the Johnson and Callahan Company for three years, the owners saw his ability and gave him a third share in the company; they put him in charge of their new store in Kemmerer.
Mr. Penney said of this act: “This trust that these men had in me fired my soul with ambition–by putting such a responsibility on my shoulders, I got my vision of a chain of stores.”
James Penney knew he’d have to work hard for success, but he was willing to do it. His strong faith caused him to name his first store the Golden Rule.
“My wife and I, with our one year old son, lived in the attic of this first store; our dining table was a dry goods box, our chairs were shoe cases. It was rude and crude.”
One evening while working late he said to his wife, “Some of these days I’m going to have stores all over the West.” Mr. Penney had twenty-five stores in mind then; when he had those he aimed for fifty; when he reached that goal he knew there was no limit. Now, in 1964, the Penney Company comprises nearly seventeen hundred stores–and it’s still growing.
As I have said before, Mr. Penney bases his whole formula for success on the application of the Golden Rule. When he first started his business he “was told it wouldn’t work; but I was willing to work hard, get the right kind of men, sharing with them the profits of the company.”
In “choosing the right kind of men” Mr. Penney bases his judgment on character, training, and responsibility. A fourth prerequisite a prospective employee (or associate as he prefers to call him) must go through does not deal directly with the man himself, for Mr. Penney is quoted as having said, “I’ve never hired a man unless I’ve interviewed his wife first.” He is a strong believer in the saying “Behind every good man there is a good woman.” In an address to the Twentieth Century Club of Courtland, New York, Mr. Penney said, “Whether or not a man likes to admit it, it is true: a woman is the power behind the throne in every man’s life.”
Now, at the age of eighty-nine, James Cash Penney still adheres to the same principles and strong beliefs with which he started in 1902. When he settles himself in his new office on the forty-fifth floor of the modern J.C. Penney Building, he can look back on his life and accomplishments with pride, for he has achieved this success through faith, honesty, and humility. When I remarked to him that he had a great deal to be proud of, Mr. Penney said,
“Pride is a terrible thing to have, Ms. Sullivan. One should be humble rather than proud; humility is the answer to happiness.”
Mr. James Cash Penney continued to serve on the company’s board of directors until his death on February 12, 1971.