Back to Sears
Chicago Tribune, June 16, 1907
Looking it all over, it became a commonplace thing that the Richard W. Sears, telegraph operator in the little railroad station at Redwood Falls, Minn., fifteen years ago, is the millionaire head of the greatest mail order establishment in the world.1
Sears himself says that all of this is commonplace; that if a watch firm at Fredonia, N.Y., years ago hadn’t sent him a watch, C.O.D., with privilege of return if he thought he couldn’t sell it, he still might be dealer in coal, wood, and lumber in northern Minnesota.
It is Richard W. Sears, millionaire, who stands out in the sharp relief of his individuality against the background of the conventional millionaires of the United States.
Who in Chicago knows this man Richard W. Sears? Neither his name nor that of his wife is on the roll of any church. They are not to be found on the membership lists of any club or society. They never have figured in the light of any of Chicago’s society movements in which the possession of much money always has been of such necessity. They tell you, over in fashionable Oak Park, where the Sears home is and has been for several years, that not one call of members of the fashionable set paid the Sears household ever has been returned.
Here was something to look into, especially in view of the fact Sears himself is only 43 years old and companionable, while it was agreed that Mrs. Sears is younger and personally quite eligible to all that is encompassed by that threadbare “charming” of the social world.
Many Friends but No Society.
It was novelty to discover that some of the closest friends of this millionaire family were the friends made when the Sears home in Chicago was a little flat, rented furnished, a dozen years ago; that some of the other closest friends of the household had been acquired in that other modest flat of a year later, when the Sears purse could afford to buy a flat’s simple furnishings. It has been the process of years for the few newer friends of the household to come into its simple life of wealth.
For the Sears life is of the simplest, and more—it is lived and not preached. The home at the coner of South Oak Pak avenue and Pleasant street in Oak Park is outshone by a half hundred other houses in the village. The summer home of the Sears family at Gray’s Lake, Ill., merely is a strictly modern farmhouse, fronting the lake from a stretch of virgin timber, while behind it and to the right and left are acres and aces of farming land sown to grass and planted to corn, and tiled and tilled in a manner to make an object lesson of it passing farmers.
It is between the home in Oak Park and the farm at Gray’s Lake that the Sears simple life is lived, year after year. A two months’ stay in Europe last winter, in which letters of introduction or letters of credit, was the first break—and probably the last—in the routine of this simple life.
Today on the Gray’s Lake farm the little Searses are running wild in the woods bareheaded and sunburned and often tattered, There are four of them—two girls and two boys—and frequently in the little main street of Gray’s Lake village, two miles away, a two-seat runabout brings the father in flannel shirt and overalls bowling up to “the store,” with the four little Searses hanging on to the vehicle just as they caught it after a race through the woods intercepting it.
Inland Architect, June, 1906
Richard W. Sears, Summer Residence, Grayslake, IL.
Practical Lesson in Economy.
“Funny,” some one in Gray’s Lake remarked to me:
The Seares were in here the other day and the father insisted that one of the children could have only 10 cents of the 50 cents he had given the boy for a purchase. Yet Sears went right over to the livery stable, where there were two coach puppies for sale, which one of the children wanted, and paid $50 for the dog.
In the Sears philosophy of the simple life there is a vast difference between one of his children wanting 50 cents for candy and the same child wanting two dogs that cost $25 apiece.
The Sears summer home is a practical farm, largely that when the two boys are old enough they shall lend a hand to the sowing and the harvesting of the farm crops. In the meantime the father in flannels and overalls, working at the roughest of his work when he finds the time, is keeping close to that nature which alone is holding his perspectives clear and his sense of proportion true.
I have talked with the millionaire advocate of the simple life, who, dwelling on his riches, has shown me the miserly poverty of his nature. I have seen the millionaire advocate of the complex life, dwelling upon his riches and proving how wealth had distorted his views of rational living. But a new note has been struck for me in the character of this man Sears, who dons flannels and overalls to forget his wealth and its responsibilities; who cherishes the friends of his poverty in order not to be reminded of it; and who, with all the suggestion of extravagances which wealth might have prompted, finds nothing which it can buy to add to the gentle home life that was his years ago.
Approximately there are 50,000 telegraph operators in the United States. Approximately half of these are men operators. Making millionaires of all of these in the next dozen years, how many Searses among them?
Redwood, Minnesota station, from which Richard Sears sold his first watches.
Story Wonderful as That of Aladdin.
Commonplace as it seems to this man—station operator only a few years ago in the lumber woods of Minnesota and today president of a corporation of $40,000,000 capital employing 1n plant and subsidiary manufacturing stations 18,000 workers, and making annual sales of $50,000,000 a year—the Sears rise after all is akin to the story of Aladdin’s lamp. It is only that instead of a lamp to be rubbed it was that silver watch.
There were no particular promptings to a mercantile life in this young Sears. He wanted more money than the $50 a month and board, and in his fuel and lumber yard in Redwood Falls he was making more than his salary every month. But this $9 watch came C. O. D., with a suggestion from the shipping house that the young telegraph operator could make a nice profit selling them to agents and railroad men throughout the northwest. The price at which that watch could be delivered to him away up there astonished young Sears. Between the railroad men—buying and selling these watches with three ounce silver cases and jeweled movements—the standard figure was $20!
On the mail train of that night was a letter addressed by Sears to a standard watch manufactory making inquiry as to the price at which it would deliver him watches at Redwood Falls for retail. The figure quoted him on that particular grade of watch, C. O. D., was $9.40. It was a better watch. The day that the quotation was received Sears wrote forty letters to forty men in forty different towns—the swing of the old Western Union “hand” on the railway totter heads—asking if these men would not like to buy a good watch, cash on delivery with examination privileges, paying $11.90 each. The percentage of these men who wanted just such a watch was enormous, and on that first deal Sears cleared $200.
Goes into Business of Selling Watches.
This was the Sears beginning. He resigned his post at Redwood Falls and went to Minneapolis, selling out his fuel and lumber interests. He was a mail order merchant almost as unexpectedly as he might have become a skilled surgeon with a practice of $50,000 a year!
The Minneapolis move was as successful. Sears branched to Chicago and also was so successful that within two years he had cleaned up $200,000, solely on $9.40 watches at $11.90 apiece.
But the hard times of 1893 came on. Men don’t buy watches in hard times. Sears had nursed the idea of starting a bank on this competency, which he felt he had rounded out. His idea had been to go back to borne good town in the northwest for the experiment and he went. But northwestern towns were slow after the pace of the cities.
Sears put on his thinking cap. In these hard times in which watches were not salable he would lose his business prestige if he sat back waiting for a return of the time when watches again would be salable. The result of his thinking was to add to his line some of the necessities even of hard times, Buggies, harness, and sewing machines were the articles that appealed to him, and he had letter heads printed indicating his widening of the business. Then he prepared to feel his way for the one location for the plant.
His new letter heads showed the Chicago house to be only a branch office, the Minneapolis street and number designating the main house. But in spite of this, Mr. Sears discovered that almost three to one of his customers preferred to send their orders to the Chicago branch number. He closed the Minneapolis headquarters and came to Chicago, taking a five years’ lease on a five story building in West Adams street at a rental of $5,500 a year.
“I can sublet the space I can’t use,” he said to himself. But within a year he and A. W. Roebuck, with whom he had gone into partnership, assigned the unexpired five year lease and moved into another building (Enterprise) three times as large as the first one.
Sears Roebuck and Company Catalogue, Spring, 1898
Business Capitalized at Forty Millions.
The times had proved especially auspicious for the business. The passing panic had brought about a readjustment of the credit system in favor of the cash purchase. Goods could be bought lower and sold lower for cash than ever before in the experience of the customer. Trade began to push the business into capacity to meet its demands and it has kept pushing until, with Roebuck retired from the business, the present Sears, Roebuck & Co., is capitalized at $40,000,000, with sales of $50,000,000 a year. The facade of the vast new plant, from two to six stories in height, is 2,000 feet long, fronting a parkway which is open air ground for 8,000 employés. Thirty acres, west from Kedzie avenue and Harvard street, have been acquired, and the passenger in the early morning Kedzie avenue car is struck by the fact that at Harvard street the packed vehicle empties itself, whether north or south bound, and its passengers merge with the vast procession that moves from the Kedzie avenue station of the Metropolitan elevated into the grounds.
Forty-eight freight cars for loading may be accommodated in the shelter of the plant and forty-eight cars may stand on the outside tracks ready for the locomotives of the Belt road, which reaches every line of railroad entering Chicago.
Looking over this vast plant, which has grown up from the receipt of that first silver watch, fifteen years ago, Mr. Sears maintains that he hasn’t had so much to do with it. Even with the prospects of the silver watch, he says that if it hadn’t been for old man Wynkoop of Rush City, Minn., he might never have had the opportunity for letting other men’s abilities and loyalty to his business make him a millionaire and the president of a gigantic corporation.
Wynkoop was a general store merchant in Rush City years ago. He was a German-American in a settlement of Scandinavians which was clannish to a degree. But Wynkoop drew Scandinavian trade away from Scandinavian competitors in spite of national ties. Wynkoop had several clerks and seldom sold goods himself. He stood always on the customer’s side of the counter and his clerks always maintained that it was easier to satisfy a customer than it was to satisfy Wynkoop. And often when the old man had studied an article and questioned and expressed doubts which the customer at his side never would have felt, the clerk would be left to restore the goods to its place while the old man walked with the customer to the door, telling him he could buy a better thing across the street.
Old man Wynkoop first suggested to young Sears that it was a good policy to sell goods from the customer’s side of the counter. When the Fredonia, N. Y., watch house suggested that Sears sell watches, he took that idea second hand. And now that his business has grown beyond the imaginations of the young telegraph operator Sears maintains that other people did it, and that as for his “brilliancy and tremendous faculty in organization”—pooh!
But it requires a good deal of character, native modesty, and common sense in the active man of millions to keep hands off in the activities of the business.
“You can’t tell a man just what he is to do and how he is to do it, and then hold that man responsible for what he does,” is one of the Sears principles.
When the new plant was planning Sears sent for the manager of the department which had been getting out the Sears catalogues. A big contracting printer had been doing the catalogue work. Sears asked his manager if he didn’t think the new plant should have its printing plant and bindery. The manager said it should.
“Well, Blank & Blank are our architects,” said Sears. “See them and build the plant.”
Employes Accept Full Responsibility.
On one occasion a firm wishing to do business with the Sears house sent its representative there prepared to close a contract with the company. He was referred to the manager of the department. When the proposition had been canvassed and found acceptable, the manager signed the contract.
“Now, where shall I go to have this O. K.’d?” asked the agent.
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” said the manager. “I have contracted with your firm; you’ll find that it holds.”
It was that particular representatives first experience of the kind in his business career!
When you ask these heads and managers of this house, however, you discover not only a reason for this but an evidence of the Sears philosophy of “Do it.” The general manager of the house is only 27 years old, but he was only 17 years old when he came under the Sears influence. The merchandise manager is no older, and he has given every year of his business life to the Sears activities. Virtually every head of every department grew up in the house in which the principle of selling goods from the customer’s side of the counter has ruled.
“Why don’t you quit business? You’ve got enough!” was the challenge of one of Sears’ friends some time ago.
Likes the Game of Business
“That thought has come to me a good many times,” replied the millionaire, “Will you believe me when I tell you why I haven’t? There are two reasons, one of them poor, perhaps. This rather poor reason is that I like the game of business. The great reason coming home to me is that it would be selfish in me to let go now.”
I knew what Sears meant and I went to see a young man of the high strung temperament who I knew had left the Sears establishment.
“What was the matter with your old job over at Sears?” I asked. “Didn’t you get money enough?”
“O—yes,” he said, slowly; “but the trouble is they’re too d—-d paternalistic! Why, they even send around and look you up at your home!”
Could there be a plainer demonstration of the limitations of the man who has only millions? Sears would not quit business because it would be selfish, and my spirited young friend would not work there for the reason that the Sears unselfishness galled him.
The Mayo brothers, surgeons, who have made Rochester, Minn., the world’s Mecca of surgery, are personal friends of Richard W. Sears, who was born in the little town which these two brothers have made famous.
When I had seen that former employé of the Sears corporation I could understand the Sears sentiment when Sears says that he rather would be one of those gentle, simple minded brothers than to head a corporation which might control the material business of a continent.
No man knows better than the millionaire that there are other things in the world than money, and no doubt the men of dollars often long to escape the net in which they are caught. But in spite of the crude way in which “divine right” Baer voiced it, riches implies a stewardship which not even a benevolent Carnegie may escape.
“I would get out of business in a minute if I knew something in which to make a better use of money.”
This is a Sears expression made in all sincerity to a friend.
Likes to Watch Men Rise.
“But consider this: in the Chicago house we have 8,000 employés, not all of whom are the most adaptable to the circumstances of life and living. It has been a great satisfaction and a great study to see these people develop—to get a department manager here and a general manager there—to develop them. I have seen these men come up through the ranks to places in business life, and their loyalty has spoken louder than words.
“Again there are 10,000 factory people whose products are absorbed by the Chicago house—one of these the largest stove factory in the world.
“My own and my family’s wants are of the simplest. But should I quit, leaving these thousands of dependents to some one else?”
There is a little story illustrative of the Sears view of millions. Almost by accident a chance guest came into the house. Host, hostess, and guest spent some delightful hours. Before leaving the hostess suggested a better acquaintance between the two families.
“I might have suffered it myself had it not been for this infernal difference of money,” returned the chance caller.
“Yes, I’ve often thought the same thing,” returned the hostess, “It is infernal!”
This man Sears is one of the least conspicuous of men, physically and temperamentally. The man in the crowd would not see him. He is perhaps two inches under 6 feet, broad of shoulder and deep of chest. His complexion is dark and his eyes a rather light shade of brown. His speech, which la quicker than the average, is not quick enough for his thoughts, which shows the nervous temperament when the sturdy frame would not suggest it. “You understand?” is an empty verbiage which allows the space for framing the pressing thought into speech.
Quick to Think and to Decide.
But talking with this man one cannot escape the power of concentration which he possesses in marked degree. No matter how trivial the topic that is brought up, there is no wandering of the man’s attentions. He has the judicial temperament and this in combination with his concentration of attentions leaves him the powers of quick decision.
Home is this man’s sole thought when he can unload the cares of the day. How much his telephone bills of a summer are merely to hear that everything is right with wife and children at Gray’s Lake farm must be a tidy sum, though Mr. Sears counts upon spending three days of the week’s seven out there.
In this home life, in winter or in summer, those old friends of the Sears days of flat life understand why the influences of millions of money have been allowed so grudgingly to enter in. These millions are the tree and the fruit of business; the home always has been home, and the line of demarcation is drawn clearly between.
Few millionaires can understand, which concerns the Sears family not in the least.
The Sears friends who were made when the Sears fortune was a least asset in that friendship are friends who count present millions as no possible block or bar to its continuance. For millions never are talked—never are thought—never are needed in the Sears social circle.
An odd millionaire, isn’t he?
1Richard Warren Sears was born in Stewartville, Minn. on December 7, 1863. He married Anna Lydia Meckstroth of Minneapolis. Their children were Sylvia, Wesley, Serrena, and Warren. Mr. Sears died on Sept, 28, 1914 in Waukesha, Wis.