Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney / Edition 1

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"JCPenney was the quintessential American company. Since James Cash Penney opened his first store in the small mining town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902, this unique institution has been an iconic part of the national landscape. Founded and run on the core principles of thrift, hard work, and good citizenship, the retail giant prospered throughout the 20th century, even during the Great Depression, as American citizens came to rely on it for its good values and service.

But by the year 2000, its original beliefs arrogantly betrayed, JCPenney’s Golden Age was, sadly, just a memory.

Celebration of Fools is an insider’s look at JCPenney’s remarkable rise and fall, charting the people and events that have been the history of this American institution.

Packed with captivating stories and compelling characters -- including the company’s highest ranking woman -- Celebration of Fools offers valuable lessons applicable in today’s business climate.

With an engaging, narrative style, former Penney executive speechwriter Bill Hare tells a compelling cautionary tale with universal implications for all of corporate America.

Casting new light and astonishing revelations on this American icon and the people who nearly destroyed it, Celebration of Fools will keep readers captivated from first page till last."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Cecil Johnson, syndicated columnist: ""A riveting narrative history focusing on the people who created the company, made it great and were involved in its decline.""

Executive Insider (ExecuNet.com e-newsletter): ""A gripping, exciting and alarming business thriller where the reader knows or at least suspects the ending, but nevertheless finds the journey fascinating.While the book has the energy and drive of a good summer beach read, it delivers a compelling argument that an executive who reinvents himself after he reaches the top rung may have just manufactured a fool.""

George Anderson, Moderator, RetailWire.com: ""Celebration of Fools tells a story about the power of committing to a vision that all in retail or any other business should aspire."""

George Anderson
"Celebration of Fools tells a story about the power of committing to a vision that all in retail or any other business should aspire."
Moderator, RetailWire.com
Executive Insider
What a gripping, exciting and alarming business thriller where the reader knows or at least suspects the ending, but nevertheless finds the journey fascinating?.While the book has the energy and drive of a good summer beach read, it delivers a compelling argument that an executive who reinvents himself after he reaches the top rung may have just manufactured a fool.
Publishers Weekly
Former corporate speechwriter Hare presents an unvarnished look at the J.C. Penney Company, a truly American saga that parallels U.S. business history itself. Hare looks at the company from its beginning in 1902 as a dry goods store, through its rise into a successful chain of full-service department stores rivaled only by Sears, Roebuck, to its fall into bankruptcy in the 1990s due to corporate bungling. But his narrative is based on individual portraits of the men who first developed-and who, he says, later betrayed-the company's "revolutionary concept": "letting stores be driven by clever individuals whose long hours of work would include a `solicitous interest' in the well-being of the store's surrounding community." Hare crafts excellent portraits ranging from founder J.C. Penney, a "gutsy risk taker," to the company's prebankruptcy leader, Jim Oesterreicher, "a man clearly in over his head as CEO." He also captures how women such as Gail Duff-Bloom had to fight to rise to positions of influence within a male-dominated corporate culture. The weakest parts of the book are its first few chapters, featuring Hare's dramatization of the company's early years: his creation of incidents and dialogue to create "reasonable reflections" based on available historical records fall flat. But the rest of the narrative, for which Hare interviewed firsthand participants, effectively recreate key incidents, such as charismatic Penney CEO Bill Howell making his unexpectedly thrilling 1993 speech on corporate sexism to the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Agent, Denise Marcil. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of J.C. Penney
There was a time when J.C. Penney Co. represented the best of American business. Starting in 1902, founder James Cash Penney built his business from a single store in Kemmerer, Wyo., to a respected retail giant. Based on a formula that extolled the virtues of honor, confidence, service and cooperation, J.C. Penney Co. grew into an American institution through the hard work and long hours of Penney and his well-chosen, relentlessly trained managers and staff. Bill Hare, an executive speechwriter who has worked for two CEOs at J.C. Penney, describes the saga of a company that started with the thrift, vision and good citizenship of its founder at the turn of the 20th century and struggled for survival 100 years later because of the foolish actions and behaviors of its top executives.

Throughout Celebration of Fools, Hare traces the intriguing story of the company from its humble beginnings, through its rapid growth, to its disappointing, foundering days under the control of leaders Hare describes as arrogant and self-serving. Written as a nonfiction narrative, Hare weaves many colorful details about the company's people and their experiences into an exciting, frustrating and cautionary tale where creative employees and executives are crushed by weak leaders and their over-abundant hubris. The results of his captivating storytelling are business tales whose lessons can be applied to any company coping with internal and external changes and difficulties.

A Complex Cast of Characters
While developing the characters of his saga from intensive research into the history of the company as well as his own personal insight while working for its corporate executives, Hare presents a complex cast of characters who represent many of the attributes and idiosyncrasies of players throughout the corporate world.

Hare begins his story by probing the mind and motivation of the company's doting founder who wrangles with self doubt and copes with heartbreaking loss. Hare also describes the personality and strength of the founder's hand-picked successor who battles intense opposition as he struggles to keep the company rooted in Penney's vision and values. He also describes the deepest thoughts of the company's highest-ranking woman as well as her frustrations with the powers beyond her control. While examining the upper ranks of the company over the years, he also introduces the frustrated young designer whose successes and genius are crushed by his new boss's flagrant prejudices.

Indecision and Bad Decisions
While revealing the company's mistakes and downfall, Hare presents the weak chief executive whose indecision and bad decisions, according to Hare, lost millions for the company's stakeholders. Along the way, he introduces many other "Penney people" whose hard work made the company what it was and who paid the price when higher-ups drifted from Penney's guiding principles.

This insider's look at J.C. Penney's steady rise and incredible fall offers readers a detailed study of leaders and the choices they make. By revealing the human side of powerful people and the effects their choices can have on an organization, Hare presents a case study of a company that changed from a unique retailer based on principles of trustworthiness, service and value that focused on serving customers and communities to one that focused on sales and profit. His examination of the people at the top of the company creates an important and relevant tale from which any company can learn.

Why We Like This Book
Full of emotion, deep soul searching, and pivotal moments when the company's future hangs in the balance, Celebration of Fools shows what happens when a company founded on strong principles of good business loses its way and falls victim to the hubris of big bosses. Hare's superb storytelling turns this business story into a smartly written tragedy from which anyone can learn how business should and should not be done. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814471593
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 5/31/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Hare (Dallas, TX) worked for 15 years as a speechwriter for senior executives in Fortune 500 companies, including two CEOs at JCPenney. He has won numerous advertising industry awards.

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Table of Contents

"JCPenney Home Office


Part I The Founder

1 America’s Famous Old Man

2 Kemmerer

3 Bumpkins in the Big Apple

4 All Their Managers Are Like Masons

5 The Bailout

Part II The Visionary

6 Socratic Method

7 Their Own Thing

8 Batten’s Ascent

9 The Common Touch

10 A Quiet Man

11 The Memo

12 The Transaction Recorder

13 Last of the Good Men

Part III The Betrayer

14 New Blood

15 Bill Howell

16 The Taj MaHowell

17 The Designer

Photo Section

18 Showtime

19 The Golden Crescent

20 Onward and Upward

21 The Speech

22 Where Have All the Core Values Gone?

23 What If I Talk to W.R.?

Part IV The End

24 Jimmy-O the Farmer

25 There’s Nothing There

26 Standing in His Underwear

27 The Funeral and HCSC


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First Chapter

Celebration of Fools

By William Moorman Hare


Copyright © 2004 William Moorman Hare
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-7159-5

Chapter One

America's Famous Old Man

As founder of the nation's best-known cash-and-carry business, James Cash Penney had never been amused that his own middle name described that which made his world go around. In fact, on all occasions he was quite serious about money, both in its prudent use and in assessing the value of things in trade.

Grapefruit, for example.


Penney had been booked into the Great Southern Hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio. He was not comfortable with such upscale accommodations on the road, but company travel people were often arbitrary, feeling that anything less was not in keeping with his elevated stature. So there he was now, in the rather elegant dining room ordering breakfast. "And about the grapefruit?"

"Yes, Mr. Penney?" said the waiter. Of course the dining room captain had quietly informed the waiter about their esteemed guest.

"Would you please serve me the bottom half?"

"Certainly, Mr. Penney." Then, just to be certain, the waiter added, "That was the bottom half, sir?"

Penney nodded, cupping both hands one atop the other as if surrounding a grapefruit. Then he straightened the lower hand into a knife and sliced the grapefruit in half, removing the upper part. "See?"

"Yes, the bottom half, then. Thank you, Mr. Penney."

In the kitchen, as the waiter placed hotel silver service on Penney's tray, he shouted at random, "Anybody know why the bottom half of a grapefruit is better?"

"Which is the bottom half?" someone said in passing.

"You tell me!"

And as the waiter, happily contemplating his gratuity, finally served the rich old man, he said, "There you go, Mr. Penney. The bottom half."

"Ah, yes. I can tell. Thank you very much."

"No problem at all, sir." He could not resist. "Oh, and excuse me, Mr. Penney?"

"Yes, what?"

"Well, the bottom half, sir? Exactly why did we order the bottom half?"


"I mean, as opposed to the top?"

"Oh," said Penney, seemingly relieved that there wasn't some larger issue. "It's the gravity." Again, his hands cupped an imaginary grapefruit. Now, as he grinned and his eyes twinkled, he raised and lowered his top hand as if pressing down on the fruit. Then he indicated the real grapefruit with pleasure. "More juice."

The old man finished his breakfast and checked his watch. J. C. Penney's district manager would be calling for him in the lobby, so it was time to inform the desk staff where he would be sitting in the lobby-as if the DM might somehow fail to identify one of the most famous old men in America. Penney was always early for everything but never wasted a minute. As he waited in the lobby, he would memorize notes prepared by the district manager's office about the first store they would visit that day (as it happened, the same store at which this book's eventual heroine, Gale Duff-Bloom, would begin her training three years later). Now, in the dining room, Penney rose, patted the suit pocket with his notes, and then reached into another pocket for something.

Soon it was time for the waiter to collect the anticipated generous tip. All waitstaff eyes were on the aged celebrity as he appeared to take out an old-fashioned twist-lock change purse. And, sure enough, a minute later the waiter looked around with dismay after stopping at the Penney table. Then he held up a dime between his thumb and index finger, swinging it around so that the size of the tip could be seen by all.

The date was November 1965. As he had for decades, Penney was on the road visiting stores. He traveled alone, only receiving assistance as requested from stop to stop. He was 90 years old.

Two Quarters?

A year later in New York, Penney's president, Ray Jordan, was just returning from a difficult meeting with his boss, chairman Mil Batten. The two men oversaw Batten's baby, the great transformation of the J. C. Penney Company. Once America's Main Street merchant, the giant organization was becoming king of the malls with full-line department stores. The long-range business plan also included an expensive move into the mail order catalog business, which was soaking up money with no profit foreseen until the early 1970s. Consequently, dividends were down considerably. Wall Street, the financial press, and Penney stockholders were highly critical.

"Isn't it ironic?" Batten had said. "Now they complain bitterly because we didn't stay rooted in the past-"

"Yeah, but if we had," Jordan jumped in to straight-man the punch line, "and then started to founder like Wards-"

"They'd scream bloody murder because we stayed rooted in the past!"

"Nobody said the job was easy."

"My, oh my, oh my."

"Maybe we should make this an ongoing educational project, instead of just saying something in the year-end letter. Send reports and 'progress' reports, and you give some talks on the Street."

"I hate speeches. Unlike our founder."

"Well, maybe we need to communicate better. 'Our future's at stake, we gotta keep on track and stay with the plan,' something like that."

"Maybe, I don't know. See what the others think."

"Will do," Jordan had said without much enthusiasm as he rose. Both men were tired of shouldering great responsibilities while fencing with myopic stockholders. Jordan headed toward his office abstracted in thought when his secretary called, "Oh, Mr. Jordan, Mr. Penney wants you to call him."

"Oh, no," he breathed to himself, anticipating more pressure on the transformation. Might be catalog, he thought, since catalog was the whipping boy of the hour. He dialed the founder immediately.

"Mr. Jordan, I was wondering if, at your convenience, you might drop into my office for a moment."

"Certainly, Mr. Penney. I'll be right up."

"At your convenience, Mr. Jordan."

"It's convenient right now, sir."

"If you're sure."

On his way to the founder's office, Jordan shook his head with amusement. At his convenience! There was Mr. Penney, last of the mercantile royalty, still coming to the office at age 91 and still refusing to pull any historical rank. Why, they couldn't even get the old man to use a company car. Every morning he could be seen walking from his Park Avenue South apartment building to a bus stop!

Despite Batten's brilliance and Jordan's steady effectiveness, James Cash Penney was still the star of the company-ceremonially. He was by far the most popular corporate symbol in the United States, which represented a triumphant comeback from the humiliation of his financial failure and nervous breakdown suffered decades before. But while Penney had been trotted out for company conventions, store visits, and press opportunities, some New York insiders almost held the founder in contempt. The company had thrived without him and even despite him. And, once upon a time, hadn't several key Penney men actually bailed him out?

When Batten rose to power, his personal project had been the rehabilitation of the founder's reputation in the New York Office. In the field and to the public, Penney was a mercantile and moral god. So Batten set about promoting Penney's accomplishments, beliefs, and talents in the Big Apple. In time, Jordan joined in the effort.

Batten had long thought that Penney's self-improvement correspondence course for associates in the 1920s was a stroke of genius. He considered the founder's bold philanthropy, killed by the Great Depression, as uplifting and feasible in better times. And Batten had come to have an especially high regard for Penney's retail and personnel judgment.

Penney appreciated the renewed courtesies in New York. But he had never been bothered much by the remarks that he knew small men made behind his back. He ignored them, as he had learned to do the hard way long ago. Penney knew his role and had comfortably settled into it over the years. Today he was content to be only a public figure, to be an adviser only when prevailed upon, and to act as a conduit only when ardently summoned. It was in these roles, bolstered by the new respect of top management, that Penney happily lived out the rest of his life.

Jordan knew of the founder's desire generally to avoid anything but the ceremonial. But he also knew who was the J. C. Penney Company, and he knew it wasn't Batten or himself. He felt that Penney probably could not avoid being recruited for a cause, and therefore Jordan rapped quietly on the founder's door with more than a little apprehension.

"Thank you for dropping by, Mr. Jordan."

"No problem, sir."

"Actually, it's me. I have a little problem," he smiled.



"Well," Jordan said still warily, "it seems to be on everybody's mind these days."

"Not mine," Penney replied. "It's something else." The founder hesitated, as if unsure how to proceed.

"Anything I can do, Mr. Penney."

"It's about our barber."

Jordan hesitated. "Our barber? We have the same barber? I didn't know that."

"We do, and I have a problem."

"We have a problem, Mr. Penney," Jordan said with relief. "That man is a better storyteller than a barber, I'm afraid."

"He is?"

Jordan quickly regretted the comment. Clearly, he heard stories that the old man didn't. "Well, there's another problem, though?"

"Yes. What do you tip the man, Mr. Jordan?"

"Tip?" Jordan should have seen it coming, Penney being Penney. Still, it was all he could do to keep from grinning. "Oh, I don't know. Whatever loose change I have in my pocket. A couple of quarters."

"Two quarters?"

Jordan thought quickly and followed with, "If I'm feeling generous and he's somehow managed to give me a decent haircut. But I wouldn't worry about it anyway, Mr. Penney. After all, you're a celebrity, and when he's got you in his chair he's the star of that barber shop. He ought to pay you."

The old man chuckled. "I never thought of it that way."

"So, when do you and Mrs. Penney return to Arizona?"

"Tomorrow morning. I'm going to the apartment and pack soon. Right after my haircut," said Penney, now happily relaxed.


A month in the desert sun had elapsed when Penney got a call from Roy Johnson, the dynamo who had retired after running the huge Seattle store for years (and, in the generous Penney way, making as much money on profit sharing as the highest-ranking executives in New York). Johnson invited the founder to speak at an upcoming Los Angeles dinner for retired managers, field executives, and their wives. Penney agreed, thinking it was just a social affair.

The old man thrived in such situations. He still had a fabulous memory and would be able to thrill many retirees by calling them by name and remembering their stores. And he didn't have to think twice about what to say on such occasions. For 50 years Penney had been making speeches, and if you accepted his almost evangelical style, he was pretty good at it. In his mind was an encyclopedic file of phrases and statements he had used publicly over time, fail-safe material to select for any audience. And so, tonight in L.A. as he strode to the podium and everyone in the ballroom rose to their feet to cheer, he had decided to keep it simple, short, and inspirational. He smiled and bowed and raised his hands to quiet them:

"Thank you ... thank you, my friends and fellow associates, thank you very much. Some today are expressing concern about the lower dividends of late due to the company's transformation for the future. This is natural and quite understandable. But I think that-in my old age-I might get away with some philosophizing instead of further comment on the company, per se."

He paused and looked around with a smile in such a way that the audience chuckled.

"Money, of course, can buy many things, but it can procure for us neither peace of mind nor well-being of soul. Therefore, the accumulation of wealth by itself is no measure of success, is it? No, we attain success only in proportion to the degree we are able to train ourselves to perform good deeds. Therein is the salvation of the soul. So things are of value only insofar as they serve to make us finer, more honorable, more cultured, more generous, more democratic, more influential and more faithful men and women. And as we likewise influence others. This I have seen and this I know from personal experience."

Again he looked around with a smile and again the people looked back with appreciation.

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's great being here and I am so pleased that Roy called to invite me. I look forward to speaking with as many of you as possible after dinner. Thank you."

Too short! He left them wanting more, and everyone got up and applauded-led by Roy Johnson, who returned to the podium with an odd, businesslike expression. "Thank you, Mr. Penney! As usual, wise words from our beloved founder!" Those two sentences served two purposes: They reestablished Johnson in control; he was the one talking now, the one in charge. And they set up Penney to be blindsided.

"Now, Mr. Penney, we have some business. I speak for everyone here and I speak for Penney retirees across the country when I say that it's now urgent to get something on the table." He looked around at the founder and spoke directly to him. "Mr. Penney," he continued, "Mil Batten is ruining the J. C. Penney Company! Please listen to what I have to say-listen to what our friends and associates here say after dinner-and then go back to New York for the next board meeting and have them fire Mil Batten before he kills our great company!"

Penney was stunned. Johnson went on at some length, saying that it was sheer folly to fix something that wasn't broken, that the Penney Company had been one of the most successful businesses in the nation, that it had always paid great dividends, and that it was now being driven to ruin by Batten's foolhardy attempt to start a catalog and turn Penney stores into mall anchors. Finally, the founder was asked to return to the podium for any comment. This time the audience was hushed.

"Thank you, Roy, but I have no comment at this time," Penney said. Then he added, "Your remarks were earnest and thought-provoking, and I have listened carefully and understand what you want. Now I must think about it, so I have nothing more to say at this time and will not for the rest of the evening."

A week later, back in New York for the board meeting, Penney waited for someone to bring up Johnson's complaint. He was now prepared to comment. But nothing was said on the subject, and the meeting was adjourned. Penney turned to Ray Jordan and Mil Batten. "Would you two please stay? I want to talk to you."

Penney reported the Los Angeles incident and then said, "When I returned to Camelback, I thought, 'Wait a minute. All of those managers in Los Angeles were retired. I wonder what the active managers think?' I decided to go out and visit as many stores as I could before flying East.


Excerpted from Celebration of Fools by William Moorman Hare Copyright © 2004 by William Moorman Hare. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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