America’s greatest business stories are the result of gigantic mergers and acquisitions. Just look at the titans of our time – AOL Time Warner, Daimler Chrysler, Suxco…an impressive group, don’t you think? These companies all were the product of grand executive vision – to create synergies, to optimize efficiencies, to be proactively active, maximizing core competencies and enhancing shareholder value while at the same time improving the drab, wretched lives of all “stakeholders” in a manner consistent with the company mission statement. Inspiring stuff, huh?
Okay, anyone who has read this site for a while has probably figured out by now that the preceding paragraph is ridiculous and doesn’t reflect my views at all, and I suspect not many of yours either. (And I know, “proactively active” doesn’t even work grammatically.) No, to me, the greatest business stories center on the companies that started from scratch – little to no capital or connections, just hard work, persistence, heart, an attitude of service, and a dream – very often the dream of one person. Eventually others are recruited to help fulfill the dream, and the result makes history. The story of Publix and its founder George Jenkins is a prime example of this.
Born in 1907 and raised in Harris, Georgia, a tiny rural community 90 miles southwest of Atlanta, George Washington Jenkins, Jr.’s family operated a small general store. At the age of 12, Jenkins began working there on and off, pushing a broom, stocking, and doing occasional counter duty. It was there that he learned the importance of quality service and keying in on a customer’s likes and dislikes, although as he later admitted, he had no designs on a retailing career at that point.
At that time, the economy of that area was almost fully dependent on a single crop, cotton. In the early 1920’s, the economy of the deep south and central Georgia in particular was utterly devastated by the boll weevil, a type of beetle that descended on the nation’s cotton growing areas like an insidious, relentless plague. By 1923, the entire area was in the midst of a deep depression, years before “The Depression” hit the country as whole. Jenkins’ father’s store, owed $ 50,000 in customer accounts he would never be able to collect, was wiped out. The elder Jenkins moved to Atlanta to start up a small grocery store - on a cash basis, of course. The rest of the family stayed behind in Harris, including George Jr., who had two years of high school left to finish.
At age 17, Jenkins moved to Atlanta, but ironically would never work in his father’s new store. Instead, he worked a series of short-term odd jobs – cab driver, lumber hauler, shoe salesman – while attending electrical engineering night classes at Georgia Tech. He then got a job that he stuck around in just a bit longer than the others, clerking at a local Atlanta Piggly Wiggly store. After a couple of months behind the counter, he began a series of fill-in assignments for area Piggly Wiggly store managers. After six months on the job, a local real estate entrepreneur talked young Jenkins into quitting his grocery job to try his hand at real estate, where he promptly sold a house at a nice profit. (It would prove to be his only sale ever.) Soon afterward, this real estate “mentor” convinced young George that their fortunes lie in Florida, where the real-estate market was allegedly reaching 1849 Gold Rush proportions. With $11 in his pocket, Jenkins made the trip, ending up in Ybor City, a predominantly Hispanic section of Tampa. His real estate-mogul dreams soon dashed along with the prospect of hanging on to his eleven dollars, Jenkins managed to locate some old friends who now lived in Tampa who gave him a place to stay. The Florida trip had become just a vacation, and he fully intended to hitch a ride back to Atlanta after a week or so.
Before that week ended, though, Jenkins would reach a turning point in his life. His Tampa friends brought him to meet a man “who just happened to own 14 Piggly Wiggly stores in the area”, as Pat Watters’ book “Fifty Years of Pleasure” puts it. Jenkins mentioned his experience working at the Atlanta Piggly Wiggly, prompting the chain owner to offer him a job, which George accepted as a means of earning enough money to resume classes at Georgia Tech the following fall. Starting at 15 bucks a week , again “as a broom pusher and a stock clerk”, Jenkins was soon promoted to manager of a St. Petersburg store at more than double the salary, plus a percentage of the store’s gross. The “Fifty Years” book cites that under Jenkins’ leadership, the store’s sales increased from $1300 to $6600 a week with a year’s time. Shortly thereafter, he was put in charge of the chain’s largest store, their $7000 a week Winter Haven unit, where he would spend the next four years.
The changing economic times ultimately had a negative effect on his store’s sales, and Jenkins saw his pay cut. In 1930, the entire group of stores was sold to an Atlanta-based operator, who “never took the time to visit the store”, as Jenkins would later mention in a 1978 speech. Frustrated with his new boss’ hands-off approach, Jenkins decided to travel to Atlanta to meet with him in person there. Arriving at the company headquarters, Jenkins was told the owner was in an important meeting, and would be unable to see him. Overhearing the boss’ conversation through the door, George soon discovered what the topic of the “important meeting” actually was – his golf game! Offended more by the owner’s negligence than by the personal slight, Jenkins resolved then and there to go into business for himself. The incident provided a huge lesson for Jenkins, one that would profoundly influence the philosophies behind the company he would soon start up.
Resigning from Piggly Wiggly upon his return to Winter Haven, Jenkins took $1300 he had been saving for a new car and used it to open his own grocery store – right next door to the Winter Haven Piggly Wiggly. His former employer had asked him to stay on one more week to train the new store manager, and George agreed. During that final week, he took every opportunity to tell his loyal customers about his plans for the “store next door”, inviting them to come check it out after he opened up. Most of them did, and before long, due to the loyalty of those customers and several months of Jenkins’ aggressive pricing approach, "the Piggly next door wiggled no more”. (Poetry fail.)
Jenkins borrowed the name for his new store from the Publix theatre circuit, a then huge chain of movie houses controlled by Paramount Pictures (the company was actually called Paramount-Publix Corporation for a brief time in the early thirties) that included such legendary theatres as the Paramount Theatre (Times Square, NY), the Brooklyn Paramount, the Chicago-based Balaban and Katz circuit, and a host of other theatres in towns large and small across the entire country. In 1935, the company became one of the more spectacular casualties of the depression, a big reason why we associate the name “Publix” with supermarkets instead of theatres today.
In 1935, five years after opening the first Publix, Jenkins opened a small second store in Winter Haven and incorporated his business as Publix Food Stores Corporation. In the years immediately following, he operated those two stores and also began to travel a bit to investigate a new food retailing concept – the supermarket. Delighted with the concept itself - huge volume, self service, etc. – but turned off by the barren, shabby appearance of most of the early supermarkets (most of which were former factories or warehouse buildings), Jenkins began to devise plans for a new kind of store - a full-line supermarket with an unprecedented level of shopping comfort and eye appeal, that he termed “America’s Finest Food Store”.
Based on everything I’ve read about supermarkets of that era, I think it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t “the finest”, you could probably count its equals on one hand and still have some fingers left. With $25,000 in proceeds from mortgaging some orange groves he owned, Jenkins opened his new showplace in Winter Haven in 1940. The new Publix was a marvel to behold, with an art deco/streamline moderne exterior design finished with white stucco and black marble, a masonry and glass-block tower and huge plate-glass windows. The “Fifty Years” book cites another first, “something never seen in Florida for a grocery store –a parking lot.” Inside were wide, uncluttered aisles and “high-style decor”, as Chain Store Age would later refer to it. The most exciting features of the new store, in the mind of the public, were the electric-eye doors, rare anywhere in the United States at that time and absolutely unheard of in small-town central Florida before then. Jenkins himself considered the store’s air conditioning system to be an even more important feature, second only to the supermarket concept itself. The new Publix became a veritable tourist attraction. Soon after its opening, Jenkins sold off the two older stores.
Both the “Fifty Years of Pleasure” book and the text of the above-mentioned 1978 speech relate a moving story about Jenkins, sitting on the steps of the First Baptist Church, directly across the street from his new store on the eve of its opening: “I looked across the street at that beautiful store and said to myself ‘There will never be another one as pretty as that. This is the finest food store that can be built’”. Something tells me that he was also thinking into the future, beyond that one store, even though he wouldn’t be able to open another one for nearly five years and Publix was the furthest thing from ‘a chain’ at that time. I’ll take that over “synergies” any day.
The pictures, showing the 1940 Winter Haven Publix, are from the Florida Photographic Collection.