Seymour Horace Knox
Five and Ten Cent Store Pioneer in the City Centres
Seymour Horace Knox (centre, left) was a first cousin of the Woolworth brothers. He followed Frank and Sum's example, taking an apprenticeship in an upstate store. He also became friends with many at Moores in Watertown, visiting regularly.
In 1884 Frank invited his cousin to participate in a joint venture, putting up half the money to open a Woolworth and Knox Five and Ten Cent store in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA.
In later life Frank remembered the store's first day on 20 September 1884 vividly. The co-owners had expected a large crowd, but found no-one waiting when they opened. By lunchtime only a handful of shoppers had visited and Knox had started to panic. The entrepreneur had liquidated his assets and invested all he had into the store. The two men went out for lunch, followed by a walk round the park trying to work out what had gone wrong. They returned at 1.30pm to find the store rushed of its feet. The pattern was repeated each day thereafter. The shopkeepers discovered that a major local factory operated an early shift that ended at 1pm. The workers clocked off with cash to spend.
Reading provided a good launchpad for Seymour Knox.
After stumbling in Newark, New Jersey a branch in Erie, Pennsylvania was his next winner.
In October 1888 the partners opened another outlet near the Canadian border at 409 Main Street, Buffalo.
The results were so good that Knox was able to buy out Woolworth and use the store as his HQ. This suited Frank's plan to establish a Buying Syndicate.
In 1889 Knox teamed up with Earle Perry Charlton. The alliance lasted for six years. Charlton had shown a keen interest in the progress of the Buffalo store while working as a travelling salesman. Although he was a first-timer and the junior in the liaison, he proved a good source of product knowledge. Like Knox he was an astute businessman. Syndicate Members came to value his fresh perspective. Unlike his associates, he was neither a Woolworth family member nor a Moores veteran.
The new partners aimed to expand into new areas which did not yet have any five and ten cent stores, spreading the formula westwards through the Rockies and into Canada. They opened a number of stores together before dividing the spoils in 1895 in a friendly split. They operated independent chains in the Syndicate for the next seventeen years.
Progress was interrupted when the Knox HQ in Main Street, Buffalo was destroyed in the Wonderland Building Fire on 14 December 1893. Four days later a smaller temporary shop opened a few doors away.
The rapid spread of the fire showed the risks of huge wooden sales floors that burnt like tinder. It led the Syndicate to revise its fire precautions.
From 1894 onwards each counter was issued with a fire bucket. It took two years for Knox to open a larger store in Main Street, Buffalo.
The decision to take the Five-and-Ten into new territories was a wise one; Knox was able to boast that some of his branches were the "Only Store Of its Kind" in the whole State.
In-store Knox balanced his merchandise between products sourced by Frank Woolworth and ranges of his own. He kept his finger on the pulse and was quick to spot the potential of new lines and rush them to the shelves. His management style was more authoritarian than that of his cousins.
Both Frank and Sum Woolworth chose to engage their Store Managers and persuade them to their point of view, which sometimes gave problems. For example Frank struggled to persuade his team to embrace the idea of selling sheet music. Knox was able to proceed more rapidly. He deemed the department a key feature of his new new stores and told his Managers to do what they were told.
Sheet music had already become a best seller at S.H. Knox & Co. before Woolworth's had even put it on sale.
Seymour Knox had a profound influence on the future direction of the Syndicate by proving that one of Frank Woolworth's core assumptions was incorrect. After the failure of the prototype 'Great Five Cent Store' in Utica, New York, Frank had assumed that only suburbs and rural communities could sustain a five-and-ten. He did not believe that cheap products could generate enough profit to pay the higher rents and wages of city centres.
Knox ignored the perceived wisdom and chanced his arm with a small store in Detroit, Michigan. He invested in a smarter shop-fit, brighter lighting and more attentive service. Huge crowds thronged outside before the opening. Some people did not get inside all day. Even with an army of clerks the store was too small to cope. Within the year it was expanded six-fold, taking over all of the neighbouring shops. The smarter look attracted more affluent shoppers, who were happy to pick up a bargain. It provided a formula that helped other Syndicate Members to master big cities.
Knox and Woolworth shared a love for self-publicity, and boasted of their success. When Knox published picture view books of the towns and cities where he traded, he reserved pride of place for a photo of his 5 & 10¢. While other landmarks had captions like "The Town Hall", his store got star billing with hyperbolae like 'the world's busiest store'. The Michigan store was tagged "Detroit's favorite spot - S.H. Knox & Co."
All of the Pioneers copied the City Centre formula with openings of their own. Knox went on to enjoy particular success in State Street, Chicago, Illinois and on the corner of Queen's Street and Yonge Street in Toronto.
Success in the big cities brought increased confidence. In 1906 Seymour Knox joined other Syndicate members in incorporating his company. Shares were sold privately to family members and long-serving staff in a move intended to minimise the risk of a hostile takeover. Knox ploughed much of the money raised into a surge of store openings and extensions. By 1912 he operated 98 stores in the USA and 13 in Canada, and was the second largest company in the Syndicate after F.W. Woolworth & Co.
In 1911 Frank Woolworth suggested that the rivals should merge to form the largest store chain in the world. He believed that it would be too large to be taken over, making it safe to sell shares on the stock market. A broker's preliminary valuation suggested that at least $50m could be raised by selling stock.
Controversially Woolworth insisted that the new firm must carry his name, and elect him President. Each of the other Founders would be a Director and SVP.
Knox's health was failing. The fifty year old had kidney disease and high blood pressure. The merger would allow him to cash in and slow down. His share of the bounty was expected to top $10m. Before agreeing he secured guarantees for his people and a commitment to base a District Office in Buffalo.
When F. W. Woolworth Co. was listed on Wall Street in January 1912, the offer was over-subscribed. It raised a total of $65m. The Knox stores were valued at $12m, which softened the blow of losing control. Seymour Knox used some of his windfall to fund the Knox Memorial Central School Building in Buffalo, It was inaugurated on 30 July 1913. He also invested in several high profile initiatives to develop enterprise and civic pride in Buffalo. To this day he is celebrated as one of the City's great pioneers and benefactors.
Unable to slow into retirement, he also bought a controlling interest in the Marine Trust Corporation, which included both the Marine National and Colombia National Banks. He divided his time between Chairmanship of his new acquisition and his duties as a Director and Senior Vice-President of Woolworth's. Company records show that Knox's expertise helped to drive a plan which saw the chain open a remarkable 404 North American Stores in the five years after flotation, with a further 50 in the UK.
Knox succumbed to poor health, passing away at home on 16 May, 1915. Frank Woolworth was shocked that such a vibrant and energetic man could be struck down at just fifty-four years old. The same sentiment was reflected across more than 700 stores in the USA and Canada. All chose to close their doors for the funeral. Frank Woolworth gave a eulogy about his long-time friend, telling mourners that Seymour Knox was "a prince among men". Grace Knox took steps to establish an Endowment Fund at the University of Buffalo, giving the inaugural $250,000 in her late husband's memory in 1916.
Knox's son and grandson, Seymour Knox II and III, served as Woolworth Directors, helping to secure his legacy in a line of continuity of over sixty years in the Boardroom. Today some former Knox stores trade as branches of Footlocker, the modern trading name in the USA, and his endowments provide an enduring memorial to a great pioneer of value retailing.
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