1922: NCR General Manager Jack Barringer

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

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$1,250 for a Shine

But “Jack” Barringer made that shoe-blacking episode a million dollars to the National Cash Register Company, of which he is General Manager

by B. C. Forbes

What would you think of a man who would order a shoe-shine costing $1,250 of his company’s money? You would feel like calling him crazy. Yet that is exactly what a certain big executive did. And he was not crazy; for that shoe-shine did more than any other one thing to enable his company to sell more goods last year than in any pre-war year in its long history.

Here is the story:

Eight hundred or more salesmen of the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio, had gathered in convention from all parts of the United States, Canada, and farther afield. It was at the time when everything was tumbling and crumbling, following the bursting of the war boom. Pessimism enveloped the country like a thick, dark, chilly pall. Every wide-awake organization realized that extraordinary efforts were needed to stem the tide of receding business. If ever there was need for gingering-up a selling force, it was then.

To generate determination and enthusiasm the company had expended more than a hundred thousand dollars in getting the convention together. The opening proceedings had been cordial; but after the convention got down to the consideration of serious business, the pessimism and dissatisfaction which had infected some of the selling force began to make their appearance.

First one man and then another and then another got up and grumbled about his territory; it was not large enough; it had been worked dry; the quota of business expected from it had been fixed at an unreasonable figure under the circumstances; and so forth, and so on.

The convention, that had been called at such cost to inspire the selling organization, threatened to degenerate into a dirge of discontent and despair.

Suddenly, up on the platform jumped Vice President J. H. Barringer. He held up his hand to stop the proceedings, after the manner of a policeman stopping traffic on a busy street.

“Stop this convention!” he shouted. “I want to have my shoes shined. Send for the bootblack!”

Everybody gasped. Already it had been stated that the convention was costing the company two hundred and fifty dollars a minute! Yet, as calmly as if he were in a bootblack’s parlor, Barringer sat before the dumfounded salesmen and had his shoes shined. Then, when he paid the bootblack, he took off one of the newly-shined shoes, held it up, and addressed the amazed convention in some such words as these:

“You see this shoe. It has been well shined. You saw that bootblack at work. You could see that he knew his job. Let me tell you something about him: we had two other bootblacks before we engaged this one; neither of them was able to earn the four dollars a day guaranteed by the company. Every week the company had to make up a shortage in their earnings. Then along came this bootblack; and with exactly the same territory to work, exactly the same number of prospects, and exactly the same conditions as the others, what do you think he has been able to earn? His guaranteed twenty-four dollars a week? Pooh! Fifty dollars a week? No! This bootblack, with the same territory, the same prospects, and the same conditions as the other two who couldn’t earn even twenty-four dollars a week, has never failed to earn anywhere from eleven to fourteen dollars a day!”

There was an outburst of applause.

“Some of you men are complaining about the extent and the unproductiveness of your territory and the size of your quota. This company cannot enlarge the boundaries of the United States or of Canada, or of any other country. It cannot change stores from the left side of the street to the right side of the street. It cannot multiply the number of merchants or other prospects in your territory. And it is not going to reduce the quota of sales it expects from you.

“It isn’t the territory that counts. It’s the man working the territory. Get that into your heads and into your hearts. Remember the bootblack! And go to it!”

Thunderous applause burst forth, and an exuberant demonstration prevailed for several minutes. When some semblance of quietness had been restored, one salesman jumped up and proposed that the company adopt as its selling slogan for 1921, Barringer’s words: “Remember the bootblack!”

It was so voted. And more cash registers were sold in the first six months of 1921, when general business was supposed to be in the doldrums, than ever had been sold in any previous six months, with the single exception of early in 1920, when all business had been booming.

That shoe-shine which cost $1,250 — five minutes at $250 a minute — has since been estimated by the company to have been worth more than a million dollars to it.

What Jack Barringer did that day was an unusual thing. It was because of his aptitude for doing unusual things, and doing them with lightning rapidity, that this ex-farm boy and ex-grocery clerk in a country store was able in fourteen years to rise from being a thirteen-fifty-a-week clerk in the National Cash Register factory to being its general manager, at the age of thirty-eight, commanding one of the largest salaries of any executive in the country.

Barringer’s very first important promotion was won by doing one of these unusual things. While he was working as a file clerk in the executive office, it was his habit to do more work than any file clerk had done before him. He was on the job, driving ahead at full steam at five-thirty one morning, while it was still dark outside, when the president, John H. Patterson, arrived. Patterson was so interested that he called the young man in, asked what he was doing and, after some further questions, asked him what pay he was receiving. There and then Mr. Patterson raised the young man’s salary from twenty-five to forty dollars a week.

“I would have been overjoyed,” Mr. Barringer said to me the other day, “if I hadn’t been haunted by fears that the company couldn’t possibly raise enough money to pay me that amount every week! When I first entered the factory, I fixed two thousand dollars a year as the height of my ambition. But now that I was told I was going to get it, I could hardly believe it could come true.”

Born in the little hamlet of Osborn, Ohio, on November 28th, 1882, John Barringer was early initiated into the hard toil of the farm. His parents were not well-to-do, but by working before and after school hours, and sixteen to eighteen hours during vacations, he was able not only to enter high school but to pay for a course at the Miami Commercial College in Dayton. His first regular job was in a grocery store in his native village, where he worked from six in the morning to nine-thirty at night — and from six a.m. to midnight on Saturdays — for three dollars a week. He got along famously; so famously that in two and a half years his pay rose to six dollars a week.

He saved as hard as he worked, and when twenty-one was able to buy a half-interest in the store. The villagers felt that Jack Barringer was certainly getting ahead in the world. They said he was a “right smart lad.” Hadn’t he become quite an important business man?

Jack, however, didn’t quite share their ideas of the magnitude of his success. He could see little room for growth in this community of six hundred people, so he quietly visited Dayton, the nearest city, and applied at its largest establishment for a job. Note that he chose the largest city he knew anything about, and that city’s largest plant.

“1 kept saying to myself,” he told me, “that if I couldn’t make good in this place, I couldn’t make good anywhere in the world.”

But, unfortunately, that was in 1907, a year of great business depression, and he was told that instead of taking people on they were laying many off. He talked so earnestly and impressively, however, that after he had started for the door he was called back and requested to write down his name and address. The employment manager apparently made a favorable mark opposite the young man’s name, for two weeks later he received a special-delivery letter requesting him to report for work.

“I’d have been willing to start at five dollars a week,” he confessed to me; “I was so anxious to get into a place where 1 knew there would be plenty of opportunity for hard work and for making good. When I was told that I would get thirteen dollars and a half, well, I told myself that the employment manager wasn’t a very good bargainer.”

Barringer was then twenty-four. Within twelve months he so outgrew his first job, as a clerk in the wood-working department of the factory, that the supervisor made him his secretary.

Things were in bad shape when Barringer was engaged and, quite voluntarily, he worked both before and after regular office hours to straighten them out. Hours meant nothing to him. After having been accustomed to working sixteen hours or more a day on the farm, both the hours and the work in the factory struck him as child’s play.

The supervisor who next had Barringer under his wing is still with the company, and this is what he had to say the other day concerning his former protégé: “I never had a man upon whom I could so fully depend to go out and get the information or the action I wanted. He had a brusque, abrupt way of going after a man that took him off his feet and got results. He would explain briefly but clearly what he wanted — and then wouldn’t leave until he got it. Yet, somehow, he managed to do this without making enemies. It didn’t take him long to become far too big for this job; so, in justice to Barringer, I told the employment manager about him.”

By this time some of the executives had begun to take notice of the aggressive young man. They would see him in this department one day, in the next department the following day, in a third department the day after. He was always brisk and businesslike.

Says Mr. Barringer of this stage of his career: “As secretary to the supervisor I had to go into all parts of the factory. I wasn’t satisfied to get only the information he sent me after. I made it my business to find out about anything concerning which I thought he might need information sometime or other. I kept asking questions, and also keeping my eyes open as to how every part of a cash register was made. The result was that when my boss wanted me to find out something for him, I often knew the facts already and could tell him right off the bat.”

Then, one day, Barringer was told that it had been decided to take him into the executive offices as file clerk. One executive protested vigorously. Barringer, he said, was indispensable in the department he was then in. The reply of the vice president was: “One of our privileges is to pick the best corn out of the crib.” Mr. Barringer recently said to me, “I remember that phrase very vividly, because corn and cribs had been such a large part of my life.”

How long, do you think, he was in the executive offices before the president spotted him as a real comer? Just three weeks. It was then that the five-thirty-in-the-morning incident, already recorded, happened. He was rewarded by promotion from file clerk to be one of President Patterson’s secretaries. Whenever Mr. Patterson had anything new or unusually difficult that he wanted done in a hurry he called for Barringer — or, rather, he called for “the tall man.”

Here’s the sort of thing that made a hit with the head of the company, just as it would make a hit with the head of any company. When the terrible Dayton flood devastated half the city, John H. Patterson became the commander-in-chief of the rescue activities. A thousand tasks, which ordinarily would have taken weeks, had to be done in hours. He fired various orders at Secretary Barringer; among them, one to procure ten thousand poles, or sticks, for carrying banners. With everything in chaos, such an order would have staggered most men. A couple of days later, Mr. Patterson told Barringer that, seeing there such a terrific number of things to do, he needn’t bother about the ten thousand poles.

“But most of them are already made and are down in the basement,” replied Barringer.

Even amid the momentous events of these feverish days, this incident didn’t fail to register a sharp impression on Mr. Patterson’s mind.

“Never do anything without having a good reason for doing it,” is one of Mr. Barringer’s favorite maxims. At about this stage of his career, he one morning found a large force of carpenters busily enclosing with lumber a broad terrace of steps leading to the convention hall. He wanted to know why. The explanation he got was that the space was being covered in so that the salesmen attending a convention could step out there to smoke. As there was a huge lobby suitable for this purpose, Barringer ordered the carpenters to stop work on the structure they were erecting. He waited for no orders from any superior official. He knew it was the right thing to do. He knew it would save the company money. So he went ahead on his own responsibility and did it. This, too, made a hit with the highest officials.

His next promotion was not, in a sense, very complimentary. The handling of the foreign department had been so bungled that its heads were discharged, and when the president named Barringer as assistant manager of it, he remarked, “You can’t do any worse than those fellows have done.”

Again Barringer made good 100 per cent. He not only helped to develop the foreign sales to a remarkable extent, but when revolutionary changes were decided upon for recasting the whole selling plans of the company at home, he did not hesitate to voice strong objection. He declared that the proposed methods would gravely hurt the business.

The official who had conceived the changes demanded that Barringer be dismissed for trying to interfere with things which did not concern him. He wasn’t dismissed, although his objections were overruled. But, within three months, his judgment was substantiated to the hilt, and Barringer was made the president’s right-hand man, as assistant general manager.

When the vice president protested that Barringer was badly needed in the foreign department, Mr. Patterson’s reply was, “If he has proved so valuable for the foreign end of our business, he will prove more valuable in helping to manage the business as a whole.”

What would be your sensations if your employer were to ask you, “How would you like to become a millionaire?” That was the question the head of the company asked Barringer at this time.

Barringer was willin’!

“All right,” said Mr. Patterson. “Just continue to use your own head, think for yourself, do things differently’ from what they have ever been done before — when you’re sure the different way is right and a better way — and there is no reason why you cannot become a millionaire here in this business.”

That Barringer rose to the occasion was testified by the fact that three months later he received the additional office of first vice president.

This was in 1918. The National Cash Register Company had been summoned by the War Department to undertake tremendously important tasks demanding the most precise skill; tasks, some of them, more delicate than the making of watch machinery. But the company’s achievements were being impaired by the constant shifting of workers; as in other plants, workers were coming and going by the hundred, roaming from place to place. Barringer sized this up as being a problem demanding his very first attention. The only explanation he could get out of the employment manager was that the plaint of all the men was “More money, more money, more money.”

“Well, I went down to the place where several hundred men who had quit were waiting for their final pay,” he said to me, “and I asked everybody connected with the company to clear out, as I wanted to have a straight talk with these men. When all had withdrawn except my secretary, I started to ask the workers such questions as: ‘Why are you leaving?’ . . . ‘Where are you going?’ . . . ‘How were you treated while you were here?’ They opened up for fair! As I quizzed one man after another, my secretary wrote down their replies.

“Then I thanked them for enabling me to find out a lot of things that needed correcting, and I promised them I would get busy and see that the things complained of were corrected. I finished up by appealing to them to give me a chance to make working conditions right for them, and emphasized that the United States Government and the men in the trenches were looking to all of us here at home to strain every nerve to supply the things needful for the winning of victory. As a result, many of them got back on the job.

“When I analyzed the reasons given by the men as to why they were quitting, I discovered that ‘more money,’ instead of being the chief reason, was fourth on the list.”

Going straight to the men and talking with them face to face was characteristic of Barringer’s management methods. Of the seven thousand workers on the National Cash Register Company’s pay rolls, there probably isn’t one who doesn’t know him and feel that he is one of them. Having risen from the ranks himself, and having made himself thoroughly familiar with every phase of the work of different departments, he can put himself in the place of a worker and see things through the worker’s eyes.

“My office is chiefly a place where I hang my hat,” Mr. Barringer explained. “1 am always out in the plant discussing their tasks with workers. There isn’t a day passes that I don’t visit some part of the factory and talk with the men and women. My office door is always open, and I make a point of taking time to see every worker who comes to see me, even if important business matters have to be held in abeyance. I never intrust interviews of this kind to any secretaries or assistants. To the old-timers I am still ‘Jack,’ and I know that is the name all the workers give me when talking among themselves.

“Before an executive can expect to get others to work hard for him, the least he can do is to set them an example of hard work himself. I am a great believer in speed. Life is motion. I keep on the move. Therefore, when I exhort others to speed up, they know I personally follow my own advice. Speed, combined with accuracy, spells success. All the workers know that I am a bug on punctuality. Being on time and having things done on time are extremely important in running a large plant. But how can an executive who is not punctual himself hope to induce his workers to be punctual. ‘Don’t do as I do, but do as I tell you to do,’ is a poor system for any executive to try to put over on his people.

“I am a great believer in getting up early in the morning and getting an early start with the day’s work. I go at it hammer and tongs all day. I never have time to play golf, and I certainly don’t need any such exercise, as I cover the length of a golf course going from place to place in the factory every day. I try to ride horseback every day for an hour. I rarely take the time to go to a theatre. I go to bed quite early, but make it a rule to do quite a bit of reading every night before going to sleep.

“By the way, no company in the country goes as far as we do to encourage its people to read. We subscribe for every helpful periodical for our reading-rooms, and the number of subscriptions for certain publications coming from N. C. R. employees would astonish you. I have got much benefit myself from reading how men, starting as humbly as I started, succeeded in making their way to the top. I not merely read such articles, but I carefully check up the strong points of each successful man’s make-up and match them against my own qualifications, so as to find out where I am weakest, and what are my shortcomings. I urge my fellow workers to go in for this class of reading, and I know a great many of them do. It is a good thing for a fellow, especially when he is up against difficulties, to keep telling himself, ‘What man has done, man can do.’ We don’t want dead ones in our plant; we want live wires all the way through. So we have the most elaborate classes, evening schools, and so forth, to enable ambitious workers to improve themselves.

“If it were possible, I would employ President Harding’s Cabinet. I mean by this that I believe in surrounding myself with men who know far more than I do. The executive who feels jealous of a brilliant comer, and who doesn’t relish having a really big man about him, is foolishly shortsighted. The abler the men around him, the better will be the results and the greater credit will come to him as general manager.”

Original page images, click to enlarge:

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