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Changes at the top following the death of Frank Woolworth

 

Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852-1919) - the portrait in oils that adorned the Empire Room in the Woolworth Building, Frank's old office. (Frank would appreciate the exceptionally fine ornate gold-gilt frame!)


Frank Woolworth had led his five-and-ten cent store business from the front for forty years. He had thrown himself into his War Cabinet role for the US Government, and had given countless hours to planning the opening of his thousandth store in 5th Avenue, and the fortieth anniversary of the 5 & 10¢, But in quieter moments he was tired and lost without his beloved wife Jennie.

Jennie had been his nurse, mentor and friend in even-measure. Over and above being the mother of his daughters, she had provided a complete personal support network. But since 1910 she had became increasingly distant, suffering what Doctors called the "living death". Frank had tried everything. He had bankrolled Doctors, Quacks and European Sanatoriums, without success. They had made her comfortable but then, as now, they had no real cure for early-onset senile dementure. Without her Frank was lost.

So it was that just a few days short of his sixty-eighth birthday he passed away on Tuesday 8 April 1919. He had worked a full day on the previous Friday, but had complained of a cold as he left for his weekend retreat. He had also been suffering with toothache and (after the loss of his mentor William Moore) had been unwilling to accept treatment.

 

He left an impressive legacy:

  • he pioneered the mass production that revolutionised retailing around the world, kick-starting American industry in Word War I
  • he brought many products into the price-range of ordinary people for the first time - not just gold rings but pic'n'mix candy too
  • he offered efficient and friendly service to every customer, whatever their background or income
  • he built the world's tallest building in Broadway Place, New York, which was the largest of his many innovations
  • he built a multi-million dollar fortune and a chain of more than a thousand shops bearing his name on two continents
  • the New York Sun said "he won a fortune not in showing how litte could be sold for much, but how much could be sold for little".

 

Review a more detailed biography of Frank Woolworth.

Sebastian S. Kresge - dime store pioneer and arch rival of Frank W. Woolworth.  (Frank would shudder to see Kresge's picture in such a fine gold frame on this page , were it not for his own portrait being in a bigger, better and more ornate one !)


The biggest tribute to Frank Woolworth's success came from a surprising quarter. Arch rival and mortal enemy Sebastian S. Kresge had been a thorn in Frank's side for many years. Wherever Woolworth opened a store, Kresge opened a larger one close by. In his letters Frank regularly assured his Managers that the best shop to have next door was another 5 & 10¢, because his 'superior values' would shine through. But at times Kresge must have tried his patience.

Nonetheless Frank would have been touched that Kresge closed his stores for the funeral, as a sign of respect for the 'nestor of the five-and-ten cent business'. This was an homage that money could not buy.

 

Rival dimestores side by side, as in many a Main Street across America, the F. W. Woolworth and S.S. Kresge Companies

 

The untimely and unexpected death of Frank Woolworth left a vacuum at the top of the mighty F. W. Woolworth Co. His brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, would not accept the presidency, and the surviving pioneers, Fred M. Kirby and Earle P. Charlton had built substantial commercial interests of their own, alongside their Vice-President duties. Neither wanted a full-time role. The Board looked for a honest broker who would build on the foundations that Frank had laid, and opted for a compromise candidate.

 

Hubert Parson, President of F. W. Woolworth Co. after the death of Frank Woolworth in 1919 until his retirement.Hubert Parson had been hired as a clerk by Frank Woolworth in Spring 1892. The Magnate had been impressed by the tone of a newpaper ad. that Parson had placed offering his services. Hubert went on to build a reputation as a canny accountant with an eye for detail and a photographic memory. He had become one of very few people whose advice the Magnate respected. Frank explained this with an anecdote. One day the Treasurer had berated his boss: "You control every expense in the stores, challenging those managers who do not put enough stamps on their letters ... yet you carry unbanked checks around in your pockets for weeks at a time." Parson continued "Isn't it true, that if I dropped a nickel out of your office window .. [in] .. the world's tallest skyscraper, you would run down ... to pick it up? Well, that is how much interest you lose every minute those checks are not in the bank!"

Parson had become F.W. Woolworth's first Treasurer [FD] in 1905 and had taken the role of Director/Secretary in the enlarged Corporation in the merger of 1912. He had helped each Founder to invest his fortune and had sparkled as General Manager and VP after the death of Carson Peck in 1916.

 

Despite his vanity, when he went into the AGM at which the Presidency was to be resolved, not even Parson considered that he might succeed his mentor. He had never worked in a store and had trained as an accountant, not a retailer. But the Board needed a peacemaker. Getting a canny financier was a bonus. He was elected unanimously. So it was that on the evening of June 13, 1919, as he left the express lift and entered the Empire Room at headquarters, Parson sat at Napoleon's desk atop the Woolworth Building knowing that the destiny of the world's largest retail chain was in his hands. He penned this message to the stores:

 

New York, June 13, 1919

G E N E R A L  L E T T E R

THE PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE

 

     I am a very proud and happy man today as the Board of Directors of this Corporation, at their Annual Meeting yesterday, elected me to the high office of President of F. W. Woolworth Co.

     This office carries with it the responsibilities of the general management and oversight of the business, and I count on every man in the business to give me his full support and co-operation so that I can administer this office to the best interest of the business and every man in it. I propose to give the best that is in me to the administration of this great business with which I have been associated for the past twenty-seven years, but no one man can make this business a success.

     Prior to January, 1912, this business was operated as separate units by F. W. Woolworth, S. H. Knox, F. M. Kirby, E. P. Charlton and C. S. Woolworth, but each had their own business and had spent years establishing foundations and working principles for their organization, and when these Founders brought their business into the present Corporation, they had reached the point in their last year selling $52,000,000. in the year 1911. During the seven years that this Corporation has been in existence, the sales have increased to $107,000,000, and this has been brought about because the owners of these individual businesses had laid the foundation to success by giving careful thought and personal attention to the right principles of their own businesses. When these organizations were welded into the one great organization that we have today, there was a place for every man and team work was developed which resulted in the tremendous pulling power for business that has achieved the results that are on record.

     During the past four years we have lost four of the pillars of the business. First, Mr. C. C. Peck, next Mr. S. H. Knox, next Mr. C. C. Griswold, and this year our beloved President, F. W. Woolworth, but notwithstanding the loss of these great powers in the business, the organization was so perfected that the business went on increased day by day, so that it has been demonstrated that the business is not dependent on any one man. We are very fortunate indeed to still have with us in active service, Messrs. F. M. Kirby, C. S. Woolworth and E. P. Charlton whose advice and counsel will be a great help to us in guiding this great business to further success.

     We have created a new Office known as Chairman of the Board, and Mr.
C. S. Woolworth has been appointed to that office, his duties being to preside as Chairman for Board of Directors Meetings and to act in an advisory capacity to the President. With the advice and counsel of Mr. C. S. Woolworth, Mr. Kirby and Mr. Charlton, and with the loyal support and co-operation of each and every man connected with this business, your President enters upon his new duties with the full assurance that we are going to make this business greater in the years to come than any of us ever dreamt of.

     Remember that the President's office is open at all times to any Woolworth man and I will be glad to welcome anybody who takes the time and trouble to visit the Woolworth Bldg. and I want you to feel free to confer with this office personally or by letter on all subjects that may be of interest to you or the business

                                        Your new President

                                                  Hubert T. Parson