“Every business is built on friendship.”
—James Cash Penney
The department store J.C. Penney is known all over the world, yet few people realize that the namesake for the store, James Cash Penney, grew up in a small town in Missouri. The “man with a thousand partners” relied on an unshakable belief in God, self-reliance, discipline, and the morals of the Golden Rule. His high ethical standards, combined with hard work and sound economic practices, turned his small store into one of the biggest retail empires in history.
THE EARLY YEARS
James Cash Penney was born on September 16, 1875, and grew up on a farm near Hamilton. He was the seventh of twelve children to Fannie and James Cash, who was a Baptist preacher and farmer in rural Caldwell County. James grew up with a strong work ethic stemming from his strict parents. In fact, his knack for sales was stimulated after his father made him start buying his own clothes. Penney sold whatever he could, including pigs, to raise enough money for a pair of shoes.
Those early lessons about the value of a dollar were a driving force behind his success and in the way he treated employees and customers. He planned to become a lawyer after graduating from Hamilton High School, but a two-year layoff from studies, and the death of his father, forced him to become a clerk at a small retail store in order to provide money for his large family.
RISE TO FAME
Medical problems were the motivating force behind Penney’s decision to leave Missouri to live in the clean air of Colorado when he was about twenty-two years old. He took up a clerking job at a dry-goods store called the “Golden Rule Stores,” which was run by Guy Johnson and T. M. Callahan. Because of his work ethic, Penney became a one-third partner a few years later. He eventually bought his partners’ shares of the business to begin what would become known as the J.C. Penney Company. Many people told James that his business would fail because of
his moral opposition to credit, but his customer service skills and the outstanding quality of his stores proved the critics wrong.
Penney’s rise to business success, however, came with personal tragedy. His first wife died of pneumonia, leaving him with two small children to raise. His second wife died suddenly in 1924, leaving him with another son. But his third and final marriage lasted forty-five years until his death, which also gave him two more daughters.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Penney expanded his business by stocking the highest quality merchandise, offering fair prices, and hiring the best employees he could find. The number of his stores grew at an amazing rate and covered numerous states in the West only five years after he took ownership of the company. His goal was to have a chain of retail stores that covered the entire country. That dream came true a few years later when J.C. Penney stores opened in every state. Before his death in 1971 at the age of ninety-five, Penney saw his company grow from a frontier town dry-goods store to the second largest non-food merchandiser in the country, trailing only Sears, Roebuck and Co.
He was known as a retail genius, world traveler, philanthropist, farmer, author, lecturer, and the founder of one of the most successful chain of stores in the world. But the key to his success was rooted in his Missouri values and always following the Golden Rule.
*The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale spoke at Penney’s funeral.
*After his success in the retail industry, he began buying farms around Hamilton until he owned the original farm of his parents
and the house where he was born.