J.C. Penney may be best-known for his eponymous chain of department stores, but he attributed his rags-to-riches ascent to following the Bible’s most famous virtue.
James Cash Penney Jr. was born on a farm near Hamilton, Missouri, on September 16, 1875. His father, a bivocational Baptist minister, taught his son the value of money by having him buy his own clothes beginning at age eight. His father, unable to pay his son’s college tuition, started his son’s career as a salesman.
The younger Penney came to a turning point in 1898, when he opened a butcher shop in Colorado. The chef at his main client, a local hotel, expected a kickback of one bottle of bourbon a week. Penney refused—and his business closed. Without that failure, he may never have left the meat counter.
The experience freed him to become first a manager, then an investor, in a dry goods chain known as the Golden Rule stores. He opened his own location in 1902. He insisted on stocking quality goods at a fair price and accepted only cash—to keep his customers out of debt. Within five years, his two partners sold their shares to him, and Penney began a frenzied nationwide expansion.
He changed the store’s name to the J.C. Penney Company in 1913 and made its motto, “Honor, Confidence, Service, and Cooperation.” He pioneered a new brand of participatory capitalism. Initially, all managers were partners and, after he went public, managers received company stock. All employees took part in profit-sharing. By 1917, its 175 stores sold $14 million worth of merchandise.
Penney’s philanthropy supported a wide range of religious and civic charities: a farm for destitute farmers of good character, a retirement home for clergy, and the Christian Herald magazine, among other ventures. He tithed out of his belief that “a man’s duty was to support the church with money in addition to living in a conscientious and upright manner.”
But tragedy marked his life. His first two wives died, leaving him to raise three sons. His third wife, who bore him two daughters, outlived him.
During the Great Depression, he lost much of his fortune when he took out loans to finance his charitable activities. By 1932, he ended up in a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he had a mystical experience. One night, as a hymn wafted out of the hospital chapel, he cried out, “Lord, will you take care of me? I can do nothing for myself!” He said that he felt the Lord tell him, “Only believe.” His spirit, health, and fortunes rebounded. By 1950, one out of every four Americans shopped at his store.
He disputed the assumption “that business is secular … Is not service part and parcel of business? It seems to me so; business is therefore as much religious as it is secular.”
He encouraged everyone to meditate on “great principles,” which “have persisted for thousands of years simply because their truth is unassailable.” These include “great Proverbs, the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and … the testimony of men who have sought their way to the rare privilege of doing what they most wanted to do.”
He told the Associated Press, at age 85, “I know” the secret of the J.C. Penney stores’ success “was the Golden Rule.” When he followed the Golden Rule, “things went well; when I became neglectful, I got in trouble.” He died on February 12, 1971, at the age of 95, as the founder of the nation’s second-largest department store behind Sears.
In May 2020, the J.C. Penney chain announced it would close nearly one-third of its remaining 846 stores after filing for bankruptcy. This may have less to do with deviation from the Golden Rule than its inability to keep pace with a changing market. Piety is no substitute for innovation.