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J. C. Penney

AKA James Cash Penney, Jr.

Born: 16-Sep-1875
Birthplace: Hamilton, MO
Died: 12-Feb-1971
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY

Gender: Male
Religion: Born-Again Christian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Business

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Founder of J. C. Penney Company

J. C. Penney's father was a farmer and unpaid Baptist minister who taught his children to believe in the Golden Rule. Young Penney wanted to be a lawyer but could not afford college tuition. After high school he worked on his father's farm and found employment as a clerk in a local dry goods store. He moved to Colorado, where he opened his own butcher shop, which promptly failed. He went to work in another dry goods store, and after a few years he was offered the job of assistant manager at a Wyoming shop called the Golden Rule Store. The store's name reflected his own philosophy of life, so he believed it was God's will that he take the job.

When the Golden Rule Store proved prosperous, Penney was offered a chance to buy a one-third share in a new store, in Kemmerer, Wyo. The price was $2,000, and he had only $500 in savings, but he signed an I.O.U. for the rest. The Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer opened on 14 Apr 1902, with manager and co-owner Penney living in the attic, and it is now considered the first store in the Penney chain. Within a few years Penney was a partner in three Golden Rule stores, and in 1907 he bought out his partners.

His stores were among the first retailers to offer "one price for all" instead of haggling on almost every sale, and Penney set the price low enough to earn "a fair remuneration and not all the profits the traffic will bear". He instituted a profit-sharing program for store managers, which was later expanded to include all employees. Within seven years he had twenty-two stores, and in 1913 the business was incorporated as J.C. Penney Stores Company, keeping "the Golden Rule" as an informal motto. For many years he oversaw the company's hiring, and explained his philosophy as, "Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I'll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I'll give you a stock clerk". When the owner of his home town dry goods store retired in 1927, Penney bought the Hamilton, Missouri, store where he had first worked, and made it Penney's 500th store.

After the 1929 stock crash, Penney lost virtually all his personal wealth, and borrowed against his life insurance policies to help the company meet its payroll. Suffering his own depression, he briefly checked into John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium. The company, of course, survived and prospered again, and so did its founder. After regaining his health and wealth, he became known as a philanthropist, establishing or giving many millions to numerous charities. He also wrote several folksy books offering homespun homilies of running a business by ethical principles.

By virtually all accounts Penney's approach was sincere, and "the Golden Rule" was more than a mere slogan. He rode city buses to work at Penney's New York headquarters, and as late as the 1960s, while Penney was in his 70s, he regularly visited his company's stores and occasionally stepped behind the counter to help customers. Penney was one of the first businessmen to call his employees "associates", but they actually were associates -- by his death in 1971, the company's profit-sharing program included all of its 50,000 store workers, and Penney's was America's second largest non-grocery retailer behind Sears Roebuck. With decades of more ordinary business management since his death, the company's reputation and profits have, of course, declined.

Father: James Cash Penney (farmer-minister, b. 1841, d. 1895)
Mother: Mary Frances Paxton Penney (b. 1843, d. 1913)
Wife: Berta Alva Hess (b. 1875, m. 1899, d. 1910 pneumonia, two sons)
Son: Roswell Kemper Penney
Son: James Cash Penney Jr.
Wife: Mary Hortense Kimball (b. 1875, m. 1919, d. 1923, one son)
Son: Kimball Penney
Wife: Caroline Bertha Autenreith (b. 1895, m. 1926, d. 1992, two daughters)
Daughter: Mary Frances Penney
Daughter: Caroline Marie Penney

    High School: Hamilton High School, Hamilton, MO (1893)

    J. C. Penney Founder (1904), President (1913-17), Chairman (1916-46)
    Freemasonry 33rd Degree reached on 16-Oct-1945
    Irish Ancestry
    Scottish Ancestry
    Risk Factors: Depression, Tuberculosis

Author of books:
J. C. Penney: The Man with a Thousand Partners (1931, memoirs, with Robert W. Bruere)
Fifty Years with the Golden Rule (1950)
Main Street Merchant (1952)
View from the Ninth Decade (1960)


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