James Cash Penney was straightening stock in the back of a dry goods store in Hamilton, MO, in the summer of 1895. He was sulking in the back because two of his associates at the store had taken his customers away from him. It was a regular occurrence over the last six months he had been working there.
It hurt his confidence and made him upset.
They would tell him, “We were worried you wouldn’t make the sale. But don’t worry, they ended up buying some goods from us.”
His face went red as he remembered all the humiliating times those two associates would make fun of him for his poor clothing and awkward behavior. He didn’t fight back. He wanted to be a good employee, so most days James would work hard to make sure the store was in order and well stocked, but he wasn’t happy.
James had learned to work hard from an early age. He had been required to buy his own clothes since he was 8 years old. Early on he chose to start making money by selling pigs. The neighbors eventually tired of the smell and noise, so James had to get rid of his pigs. At age 19, his father helped him get this job in town which paid him $2.27 a month. Despite the meager income, James had been happy.
Only six weeks after starting the job, James Sr. died. On his deathbed, James Sr. said of his third oldest child, “Jim will make it. I like the way he has started out.” These words had a profound impact on James Jr. and gave him guidance many times in the future.
It was during this fateful day at the dry goods store, that James recalled the words his father had said. Somehow, the confidence his father had shown in him with those simple words sparked a new spirit of determination in him.
“Jim Penney,” said this new spirit, “you are making a fool of yourself; you are getting nowhere. The end of the year will roll around. Mr. Hale will say, ‘Jimmy, I can pay you but little more; your sales don’t show up very well; I’ll give you $50 for the year if you want to sign up to run errands and do chores.'”
James Cash Penney determined he wouldn’t be pushed around anymore. From that moment on he asserted himself and wouldn’t allow the other salesmen to bully him. No one would hold him back like that again. He finished the year with the third most sales. The next year he was given $200 a year and then the year after that, he earned $300 a year.
Then he got sick and the doctor diagnosed him as being susceptible to Tuberculosis. His physician recommended that he move west were there was less humidity, and never to work in a store again.
So James took his work ethic and went to Denver, Colorado. After a time, he found that a butcher shop was up for sale, so he gathered all his savings and bought the shop. The butcher told him that the chef of the local hotel in town required a bottle of whiskey each week in return for his orders. James did this one time but it didn’t feel right. He knew his father wouldn’t approve, so he stopped sending whiskey. The orders stopped and his business failed.
It was at this time, when he met two business men that started him on the path that lead to the creation of JC Penney’s. James said of the failed butcher shop venture:
“Of course I lost the hotel trade-and that meant the loss of my butcher business and of the $300 I had saved so painfully, penny by penny, but I have always been thankful. Had I been a successful butcher our J C Penney Company would not have been founded. It is my belief that right living pays in material values as well as in satisfaction of conscience.”
When things are not going well, it’s natural to ask, “What did I do wrong?” or Why did I fail?” But if you can move past looking back and really focus on moving forward, you may find that you are better off where you are rather than where you were. Adversity is a stern teacher, but if you are willing to listen, you may find a valuable lesson or opportunity.