Fred Moore Woolworth
A biography of the founding Managing Director in Britain and Ireland
Fred went on to work for three different Woolworth companies, starting his career at C. S. Woolworth, moving to F. W. Woolworth & Co. in the USA and finally setting up the first overseas venture, taking the role of founding MD of the F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd. Threepenny and Sixpenny Stores. He was treated as the son that Frank never had, quite unlike his brother Herbert G. Woolworth who was ostracized and left to fail after using his training with the five-and-ten to set up in competition.
Fred started in Scranton at age 16, under the tutelage of his Uncle, Sumner Woolworth.
The quiet spoken proprietor taught his charge about staff management, product selection, pricing and customer service.
After earning his spurs in-store and demonstrating strong commercial acumen, he was headhunted by Frank Woolworth for a new role assisting his Office Manager in the Buying Office in New York. His new boss, Alvin Ivie, had worked with the Woolworths in Moores at Watertown. The two men held the fort twice a year when Frank Woolworth headed to Europe for new products. Ivie took Fred under his wing and helped him to hone his product selection and negotiation skills. To complete his training, Fred also learnt about book-keeping and accountancy from another of Frank's protégés, Hubert Parson.
Fred wanted his own store. He was sent to Lewiston, Maine (L) in 1901, and took on Sixth Avenue, New York (R) in 1906.
At Sixth Avenue he
The Woolworth brothers systematically groomed their cousin for a leadership role. By 1909, thirty-seven year old Fred had managed a small store and one of the largest in the Syndicate. He had also learnt about Buying, Accounting and the Supply Chain and had an encylopaedic knowledge of the merchandise and suppliers. Perhaps the whole UK venture was engineered to find a role for cousin Fred. Certainly when Frank called for volunteers, Fred was the first to step forward. Within weeks he and his wife had packed up their American home and they were ready to to set sail for England. On the docks they met up with Uncle Frank and Auntie Jennie, Fred's Superintendent Byron Miller and fellow-manager Samuel Balfour. They set sail on Decoration Day, 5 May 1909.
One of the things that struck Fred was the similarity between Liverpool and New York (left). Both were large, populous and expanding rapidly. Both had invested in new public transport including tramcars or trolleys and elaborate overhead mass transit railways.
Within a few weeks Frank Woolworth became restless. He returned to New York in July. Over the next three months he relied on letters and telegrams from Fred for news of his team's progress.
It is a testament to the founding team that, despite the many differences of UK operation, they were able to get established remarkably cheaply. The Americans had made a top-up reserve of £100,000 available as needed, but this was never touched. The initial store openings, including shopfittings and stock, were all funded from the original £50,000 investment.
Fred Woolworth cut the ribbon to open the first British store in Church Street, Liverpool on Friday 5 November 1909. He entertained an invited audience to tea and cakes in the sumptuous refreshment room on the second floor. Visitors were not allowed to buy anything. A preview day was a longstanding tradition from the USA. Journalists and local dignitaries were invited to take a look ahead of the public. The following day the store attracted a huge crowd and recorded bumper sales. Fred was proud to report the success to his Uncle, who had been pacing in his New York office, anxious for news.
A particular triumph was persuading Owen Owen, a local businessman and the proprietor of a successful chain of department stores of the same name to sublet one of his buildings in London Road, Liverpool to the Threepenny and Sixpenny Stores. The endorsement proved helpful in securing other offers of property. The entrepreneur declared himself surprised that the bazaar business could look so good, and offered a 21 year full repairing lease at a fixed rental. Woolworth's remained a tenant for more than sixty years.
By Christmas the Woolworth scouts had secured properties in a line across Northern England. By the following summer the chain would stretch from Liverpool to Preston and on to Manchester, Leeds, Hull and Middlesborough. Meanwhile Frank booked a passage from New York to Liverpool to celebrate the success of the first store. The trip also allowed him to accompany Fred on a search for properties in London and South East England.
The next stores in London Road, Liverpool and Fishergate, Preston proved to be instant hits. A new Director, John Snow, laid on spectacular entertainment for the opening and helped with range development. Fred insisted on checking every new product personally and instituted a 'Buy England' policy. He instructed the Buyers to seek 'carriage forward' terms from suppliers, meaning that the cost price of goods purchased included delivery to the store.
By 1914 Fred Woolworth's record at the helm was looking good:
The Great War proved a stern test. A wave of patriotism swept the nation, prompting many male staff to sign up for military service. U-boats threatened the chain's supply routes from Europe and outwards to the USA. The parent company offered to send to send additional managers to supplement the team. Fred Woolworth and his Board declined the help, responding:
"Send soldiers if you wish to end the war by Christmas STOP. No Managers needed as stores fully covered STOP".
Fred was confident that, just five years after opening, the chain had established a repeatable formula. In-store there were women who could step up to become Managers. Far from accepting help, he accelerated the store openings programme to take advantage of a drop in property prices.
It is hard to imagine now that life continued largely as normal throughout the War. It was fought on foreign fields by brave, patriotic volunteers. Everyone else tried to keep things normal at home. There was no rationing, no curfew and even no black out in the first years of the war.
Fred Woolworth's "Buy England" policy was well timed. The stores remained well stocked with high margin, local goods. A few cost prices rose as the Buyers could no longer boost their volumes with quantities for North America, but these were generally balanced by new openings.
On 31 July 1921 the hundredth British Woolworth store opened in Westgate, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Expansion had continued at pace throughout the Great War. Under Fred Woolworth's leadership each opening had been carefully planned in advance, with only one in three of the schemes proposed by the Property Department finding favour from the Board. The MD led from the front and rigourously examined each set of costs and sales projections, sending many schemes back for re-work. Thanks to his meticulous attention to detail every store in the chain was profitable and the contribution per store far exceeded the equivalents in the USA. The MD approached meetings with his Buyers and Superintendents with the same zeal, keeping the executives on their toes and not allowing any deviation from his strict standards. The firm direction helped to establish a clear brand identity and to set the chain on the road to even greater success.
As the chain grew Fred's energetic style started to take its toll on his health. He gave each store the same level of attention with a hundred branches as he had when there just eight across Northern England. Not only did he open each new store, but he went to inspect the day before and stayed to great shoppers after the doors opened.
The high profile meant that the leader had met nearly all of his people, who felt they knew him personally. This established him as a larger than life figure. He was revered not only in Britain but across North America. It was said he had become fabulously rich not because of his surname, but through sheer hard work, starting at the bottom. He had been the one man willing to risk everything to realize Frank Woolworth's dream of stores in the UK.
In Summer 1922 Fred Woolworth returned home to visit his elderly mother, who was in poor health. He suffered a stroke while in the USA, which doctors believed was the result of years of overwork. He insisted on hurrying back to Britain to the helm of his beloved company. His illness was kept a secret from everyone except his Board colleagues, who granted him a leave of absence from their Meetings during the Autumn and Winter while he recouperated in his London home. In early January he returned to work and was well enough the chair the Board's post-Christmas meeting. Days later he suffered a second stroke and died on 27 January 1923.
Everybody was shocked at the loss of such a vibrant man at the young age of 51. The stores closed on hearing the news and again for the funeral as a wave of grief swept the company. Many Managers and their staff sent condolences to Mrs Woolworth and Fred's son, Norman Bailey Woolworth. The Company President, Hubert Parson, travelled to London for the funeral of his friend and one-time trainee. He also tabled a moton of condolence which was read at a full shareholder's meeting attended by the whole British Board. The resoluton survives. It was hand typed and signed in ink. It reads:
MINUTES OF ORDINARY MEETING OF SHAREHOLDERS OF F. W. WOOLWORTH & CO. LTD.
PRESENT: W.L. Stephenson, C.H. Hubbard, C.W. Gasque, J.B. Snow,
RESOLUTION OF SYMPATHY IN RE THE LATE FRED MOORE WOOLWORTH. On motion made by H.T. PARSON
RESOLVED that the Shareholders of this Company wish to record their deep sympathy and regret at the loss of their Managing Director, Mr. Fred Moore Woolworth, who departed this life January 27th, 1923.
He was one of the pioneers who started this business and had been active in its management and organisation since its incorporation and start in active business in 1909. The growth of the business and its increase year by year was due primarily to his able management and direction, and the Shareholders as a body wish to record in this Resolution a unanimous approval of his Directorship and acknowledge that many of the principles which he established in the business will carry it on to further success.
These Resolutions are ordered spread in full on the Minutes, and it is directed that a properly engrossed copy, signed by the Managing Director and sealed by the Company, be presented to the family as a token of appreciation for his life-work.
W.L. Stephenson, CHAIRMAN