From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
What I Learned In a Tarboro Grocery
Keep away from the easy job — when the choice is yours, pick a hard one
by David Pender
President, The D. Pender Grocery Company and The Pender-Dillworth Company, Inc.
Every time I go by a little store on a little side street I wonder if the man behind the counter is properly discontented with his job.
I was behind just such a counter in a grocery store in Tarboro, North Carolina, for a good many years; and I know how easy it is to become improperly discontented, to get to thinking that the cards have been stacked against you, and that the chance which is yours to make good is mighty slim and scarcely worth bothering about.
“If I could only get into a bank, or into the office of a big corporation, I might be able to do something! What chance has a fellow in a dinky place like this?”
Such is too frequently the plaint of the small store clerk, or of the small job man anywhere. Is it justified?
After thirty years or so in business I have come to the conclusion that it is not. A man has a chance, and a big chance, wherever and whenever he wants to make it. I have proved to my own satisfaction that whether one works in an obscure store, in the boiler-room of a factory, or sells peanuts on the street, a chance is there to be made — provided one is plagued with the right kind of discontent.
There is going to be a lot of the wrong kind of discontent during the next few years. We are now, and will be for some time to come, putting up with conditions not of our own choosing, but of our own making nevertheless. These leave a sour taste in the mouth and a tang of bitterness in the soul. Like the small-store clerk who feels that he has been given a bad deal, many of us are — and will be — kicking about what we have got and wishing for a return of the “good jobs ‘ and the “good times” which immediately followed the war.
But kicks and wishes and backward looks of longing are not going to bring the “good times” and the “good jobs.” And what I want to make clear is that the position of the individual in this respect is identical with that of a business. Just as the corporation must accept reduced profits and economize more closely than it did in the past, so must many a likely young man go into the little side-street stores, and into the unpromising offices, to take poorly-paying, long-day positions in order that he may earn a living.
We talk of men out of work and of office forces being cut to the bone; but somehow we keep a mistaken notion in the back of our heads that with the return to so-called “normal” the old conditions of a few years ago will magically return; that the jobless will get jobs and things will be easy again. This will not be true. We shall have to hunt jobs and hunt business. We shall have to make good business out of bad business. And we shall have to make good jobs out of poor ones. As far back as I can remember, I have been making good jobs out of what many others have looked upon as poor ones. I do not say this with any intention of showering bouquets upon myself, but for the purpose of bringing out a viewpoint which, it seems to me, has been more or less lost during the past few years.
The town in which I was born, forty-odd years ago — by name Tarboro, North Carolina — was a farming community of big families and little money. At least, that was the situation in my own family when I came into the world. And it was a situation which, from the money standpoint, became more acute upon the death of my father when I was seven years old.
The necessity of getting a living came before the necessity of getting learning, and it wasn’t until I was ten that I entered school. Two years later, at the age of twelve, the necessity of living again interfered with education, and I went to work as helper in a Tarboro grocery store.
That first job wasn’t much of a job. But it was as good a job, probably, as I was capable of filling, and it enabled me to contribute to the family’s support. The country grocery became my school; and, as I was young and with a great big void in my head, I couldn’t help learning something about the grocery business, and the people who spent their money for groceries.
One advantage which was on my side as I grew older was that I really didn’t know what a good job was. I found out, however, that by working a little harder and a little longer than the other fellow, I was able eventually to add another dollar to my pay on Saturday night. I also discovered that the harder I worked the more I learned about groceries and about people, and the easier my job became.
By knowing the stock, I could find a can of tomatoes in a second’s time and quote its price to the customer without consulting the price list — for prices were not posted in those days. This knowledge saved both me and the customer trouble, therefore I lost no opportunity to add to my store of knowledge about the business.
As I now see it, I was unconsciously groping about for a better position while I tied up packages, ran errands, and swept the floor. There was even something to be learned about the menial task of sweeping up the floor: when the job was performed to perfection one day, there was so much less dirt to clean up the next time, that it was an incentive to keep the floor immaculate thereafter.
Twelve years of this kind of work may seem to constitute a rather colorless background to a business career. But it furnished me with some good fundamentals, which came in handy later. The principal one of these was that only by work could I save myself more work.
Then, too, as I moved up from errand boy to clerk, and from one wage to another (none of them could be called liberal), my thirst for knowledge grew to such proportions that Tarboro became too small to quench it. So at twenty-four, with a carpet bag and a ten-dollar bill — of which three dollars and fifty cents went for car fare — I set out for the city of Norfolk, Virginia.
Norfolk wasn’t nearly so big then as it is now; but to me it was terrifying in its proportions. The usual things which happen to a country boy in a big town happened to me. My clothes and my old-fashioned bag spelled “country” all over; and, with my cash reserve of six dollars and a half rapidly dwindling, I was knocked from pillar to post in my search for work.
At that time I never had heard of any grocery clerk who had become wealthy, nor did I have more than a vague realization that perhaps there were other lines of clerking in which the hours were shorter and the pay more than it was in the grocery trade. I did have a hankering ambition to be my own boss some day: and the most likely way to achieve that ambition seemed to be by capitalizing the only experience I had gained, which was as a grocery clerk.
Often, as I look back on that experience, I think that the modern young man, starting out in life, knows far more than is good for him. He reads about the Schwabs, and the Rockefellers, and the Fords, and the big money made in this, and the big money made in that. Unless he watches his step, his search for success becomes nothing more than a search tor a chance to imitate someone. He misapplies the lesson which the success of Mr. Schwab, for instance, should convey — that of sticking to a thing which has once been started, regardless of the odds.
Very few of us are so situated that we can pick our jobs. That which becomes our life work is often thrust upon us accidentally; or else it was the only work open at the time we started in — as was the case with me in the Tarboro grocery. Even those who drift around from one thing to another, finally come to the point where they must take the decision of sticking to one job (which they may not like), or admitting that they are failures. The drifters lose valuable time in getting under way, which they must make up later in order to win.
There are some persons, of course, who are mentally or physically unfitted for certain things. But these are the exceptions. The danger — and it has been growing in recent years — is in making ourselves believe that these exceptions are the rule; that there is only one kind of work for which we are fitted, and that we will never be a success until we find it. This belief, often as not, is inspired more by a desire to avoid hard work than it is by a desire to seek proper work.
Any discontent which grows out of work itself is unhealthful. It is not the kind of discontent which prompts a man to improve his condition in life by his own effort. It is all right to change from one kind of work to another; but we must be careful to make sure, before the change is made, that it is not prompted purely by a lazy desire to find an easier task.
I believe that the ignorance — of knowing only one job — which was mine when I first came to Norfolk was actually an asset. I had a definite aim shaped in my mind; an aim made definite by the restrictions of my early training, or lack of training, which at first thought would appear to have been unfortunate. Had I known more about the world and business than I did, it is conceivable that I might have been foolish enough to throw aside my twelve years of experience in the Tarboro grocery store and to have endeavored unsuccessfully to become perhaps a banker, or a politician. It is well to think twice before we discard past experience.
I finally found what I was looking for — a clerkship in a little grocery which was willing to pay me fifty dollars a month. I held that job for seven months, and the people of Norfolk, I discovered, were not much different from the people of Tarboro. The same quick service and prompt, courteous attention which had pleased the folks down home had a like effect with city customers.
It was my hope to know Norfolk some day as well as I had known Tarboro. So, whenever I had any spare time on my hands, I spent it in trying to get acquainted. I tried to learn and to remember the names of the people whom I waited upon, just as I sought to acquaint myself thoroughly with the stock.
This practice soon brought returns. I was offered a position and a working interest in a small grocery on Brewer Street which was owned by two partners. While my wages in this store were to remain at fifty dollars a month, I was to get a quarter share of the profits at the end of the year.
This arrangement seemed to be a definite step toward the fulfillment of my ambition to be my own boss. I was highly contented with it, until I got an insight into what the profits actually were and now small my share of them would be. It amounted to only one hundred and twenty-five dollars in eight months’ time! When I discovered this, my first inclination was to quit and look for a new job. Then I took a second thought.
It was true that the Brewer Street store was far from being a success, as my one-quarter share of the profits showed. My partners were beginning to realize the fact and were talking of selling out. But I began to do some figuring. Four times one hundred and twenty-five dollars was five hundred dollars. Why couldn’t I own the store, get all the profits myself, and, in addition, save the wages which had gone monthly to my two partners? The store wasn’t big enough for three of us; but it ought to be big enough for one, if one could do the work.
I was confident that I could do the work, and that I could make the store pay — if I could only raise the two thousand three hundred dollars needed to buy the stock, fixtures, and good-will. The time I had spent in looking around had taught me many modern methods, and I had some ideas of my own that I wanted to try out. The big problem was to get the money with which to buy. The little that I had saved could not go into the purchase price, for I would need it as working capital.
Racking my brain for a solution of the problem, I at last recalled an old friend of my father’s who had come to Norfolk and had made an unusual success in his line. To this man I went with the story of my “big chance.” I convinced him of three things: (1) that I was fairly well acquainted with Norfolk and its people; (2) that I was willing, and able, to do the work which previously had been done by the three of us together; (3) that I had made a study of how successful stores were being conducted.
The upshot of the interview was that my father’s friend loaned me two thousand dollars. My partners consented to accept my note for the rest of the debt, considering themselves lucky in getting rid of a poor proposition so easily.
During the next two years I had little time for anything but work. My capital was limited, and I was heavily in debt for a store of the size. Many a night at the close of business I felt like chucking the whole thing and finding myself a nice easy berth in some store where the responsibility of meeting interest payments, and bills, and what not, was on the shoulders of somebody else.
I didn’t have time for any play. The hours which most young fellows about Norfolk devoted to having a good time had to be spent on my books, on checking up the stock, and in keeping the store clean and attractive. My Tarboro-learned plan of catering to customers in a way that would please them helped considerably. The business increased steadily, but I did not hire more clerks. I saved what I might have paid out to them and used it to pay off what I owed. At the end of two years I was clear of debt and, for the first time in my life, free to be my own boss.
“Now,” something in me suggested, “ease up and take a vacation. What’s the use in keeping this up?”
But I didn’t ease up or take a vacation. Instead, I incorporated as The D. Pender Grocery Company, with a capital of five thousand dollars. I had made a “go” of the one-man side-street store, and I was in the field for bigger game. I wanted to get off that side street and down into the central retail district. After two years of struggling under the responsibilities of debt, I wasn’t contented to let well enough alone. I simply had got used to hard work, and liked it.
There is a lot in getting really used to work, though it is an accomplishment that doesn’t come easily at first. But once one gets the habit, it becomes fixed. A man who has taken hold of a losing proposition, and has turned it into a winner seldom is contented until he can repeat the performance.
Many young fellows will sit down and take pleasure in working out an intricate puzzle; but they find it irksome to work out the puzzle of making a success of life. The two puzzles are the same in principle. The expert in either finds no joy in the problem that is easy. But give him one that is good and tough, and he is tickled to death to tackle it. It is all in getting the right sort of viewpoint, and the discontent which comes when one sees a hard problem unsolved.
One of the big faults which I find in young people entering business to-day is in their conception of what constitutes a good job. Nine out of ten get started on the wrong foot, often through no fault of their own. They hear a friend boast of having every Saturday afternoon off, or of not being required to work on Washington’s Birthday, or of the big pay he gets for working from nine o’clock until four.
Says the friend: “That is what I call a good job. That is the kind for you to get.”
There are such jobs, undoubtedly; though I cannot conceive of them as being “good” jobs. Work that is easy and that leads one into a false idea of one’s own importance and one’s own ability usually does more damage in the long run than it is worth. Easy work is invariably the forerunner of poor work and eventual failure. In the same manner, when anyone becomes so adept at his task that it requires little or no thought to perform, it is high time for him to be looking about for a new and harder task to do.
My job on Brewer Street had become easy, comparatively speaking. I know that many who had watched my business grow considered me already well established on Easy Street. Had I followed their advice I might still be a Brewer Street grocer; but, fortunately, I was not contented to finish my days there.
A new building, containing five store-rooms, was being built at Monticello Avenue and Washington Street, one block from Granby, Norfolk’s principal thoroughfare. I leased two of the store-rooms nearest the corner, had them converted into one room, and moved in. I was a little fellow “butting in” the territory of the big fellows; and, naturally, they didn’t like it. While I didn’t fully realize it then, I was in for a fight which made my little struggle in the Brewer Street store look contemptible.
First one and then another of the big stores started to cut prices, in order to divert the trade which was turning toward my doors. I was helpless. All I could do was to cut prices in return; a dangerous necessity, as my capital was not large. I do not believe there were many business men in Norfolk at the time who would have given two cents for my chances of surviving that price war. There were days when I was beset with doubts myself. But my earlier battles against want and failure had taught me to hang on like grim death until the tide turned. The tide always turns if one waits long enough for it, and works hard enough in the meantime.
The price war dragged on for two years. Then, suddenly, one of my big rivals gave up the fight. Two others soon followed, and but one genuine competitor remained in the field. He gave me a hard battle for a time and then he, too, quit.
What has always struck me as significant about this fight was that the concerns which quit were doing a gross annual business of from one hundred thousand to three hundred thousand dollars, while I was only getting started. They just didn’t stick it out, is the only explanation I can find for it. They were just as good men as I; but they were too ready to admit defeat.
But the fight was not over by any means. A venturesome wholesaler from North Carolina bought out the last of the failures and built a new four-story building directly across the street from my store. His next move was to hire at higher salaries than I could afford to pay, three of my best department heads. On this basis the price war was renewed with more vigor than ever.
Now I can afford to admit that at this point of the price war I was really licked. Continual cutting of prices had wiped out profits; my capital was depleted; and as I didn’t have the money to hire new department heads, I had to shoulder the business alone. But it wasn’t the first time the skies had looked black. I shut my mouth tight and kept the facts of the situation to myself, not even confiding in my most intimate friends.
I persuaded a brother, who was an expert accountant, to analyze my business thoroughly and to put it on a scientific basis. We checked up on every last penny, somehow managed to meet bills as they came due, and kept the front doors wide open for business as usual. The figures said I was beaten; but I wouldn’t admit it even to myself. Day by day I hung on, determined to prove that those figures lied.
And they did lie.
The competitor across the street weakened. His trade broke and came to us. The wholesaler who had started out so auspiciously withdrew, selling out to my former department heads. They continued the war for a short time, but the balance had swung my way. Like the others, they quit; and my store was alone in the field, the sole survivor of one of the bitterest price wars Norfolk had ever witnessed.
I have had other fights since, but none as tough as that one. Dotted about Norfolk and vicinity, I have to-day seventy-five stores, and the string is growing at the rate of five hundred thousand dollars in new business every year. The central store grocery department, which now extends all the way to Granby Street, is probably the largest in the United States. The Pender-Dillworth Company, Incorporated, is an independent wholesale establishment which does a flourishing business. We have our own modern bakery, and a restaurant, which is one of the most profitable ends of the business. Then we operate our own motor transportation service, a separate company under the name of the Norfolk Delivery Corporation. The business passed the million-dollar mark several years ago, and for 1921 I estimate that it will approximate five million dollars.
I recite none of these facts boastfully, for they represent nothing unusual in this day and nation. I simply want to show what a little hard work, and a little courage to stick to a job can do with very little else to commence with. Just as I went it alone when I bought the Brewer Street store, I am going it alone in the financial sense now. I own my business entirely, and it represents only the natural growth that is the result of putting back into a business the profits it has earned.
Looking back, I do not recall a single grocer who was in business in Norfolk when I started and who is still in the grocery business here to-day. Yet there is nothing at all remarkable about the formulae which have made me the exception. The things which I learned in the little Tarboro grocery turned out to be the fundamentals upon which my business of the future was to be conducted. I discovered in that little store that there is no substitute for work. That discovery, firmly imprinted on my mind, enabled me to take over the unpromising store on Brewer Street and make it profitable by taking upon myself the work which had been performed by three. It enabled me to shoulder the duties of my bigger establishment during the price war, when my department heads quit and went across the street.
And in that homely discovery about work — and who has ever disputed it? — is the answer to the question: Why is it that so many successful men started life as poor boys? What is “the advantage of poverty” to a young man starting a business career?
The answer is: The poor boy learns to work. It becomes a habit with him, and therein he possesses the first qualification for success.
There will be many poor jobs to tackle during the next few years. They may be made easier by work, or they may be made harder by lack of work. I know of no prescription that will fit the times, unless possibly it be one such as this:
“Keep away from the easy jobs. When the choice is yours — pick the hard one.”
We must remember that it isn’t good for us to become too contented. Also, we must remember that there are two varieties of discontent — one which looks forward and the other which looks back.
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