For Publix Super Markets founder George W. Jenkins, operating grocery stores was a lot more than simply crunching numbers.
“People try to treat the grocery business like it's a science,” Jenkins told the Tampa Tribune in 1988. “It's not a science — it's an art.”
He created Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix in 1930 and molded it over the next 66 years into one of the nation's premier food-retailing operations.
When Jenkins died in 1996, Publix was operating 541 stores in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, with sales of $9.4 billion. Today, it is the nation's fourth-largest conventional operator, with nearly 1,000 stores in those states, plus Alabama and Tennessee, and annual sales of $24 billion.
“He was a very smart businessman who truly cared about people — his employees and his customers — and he was a charismatic leader with an unbelievable vision for the business and where he wanted it to go,” said Ed Crenshaw, the company's current chief executive officer, in an interview with SN.
Barney Barnett, Jenkins' son-in-law and the company's vice chairman, agreed. “George loved people. No one loved people more.”
He cared so much about the people who worked for him, Barnett pointed out, “that he wanted them to be owners of the company, and from the time he opened his first store, he encouraged associates to buy stock, which gave everyone a vested interest in how the company did and made everyone a better associate.”
In 1975, Publix was one of the first companies to adopt an employee stock ownership plan. For years after, store employees sported badges that said, “I am a Publix stockholder.”
Jenkins, named posthumously this year to SN's Hall of Fame, was known to everyone at Publix as “Mr. George” — because it allowed them to be on a first-name basis with him at the same time they showed their respect, Barnett said — and his ever-present cigar was as much a part of him as the mustache he grew as a young man to make himself look older.
“George was a merchant's merchant who felt the thrill and the romance of the retail business and radiated that feeling at all times,” Frederick Meijer, chairman of the executive committee of Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., told SN in 1996. “And he was always very gracious and always willing to cooperate with anybody and everybody.”
According to Robert O. Aders, former president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, “George's whole concept of the business was very simple: to be of help and assistance to customers. There was no ego involved, nor was there an issue of whether the customer was always right. It was simply that there was nothing he wouldn't do for a customer.”
During one trip to Florida, Aders told SN, his wife stopped into a Publix and, when she reached the checkstand, realized she had left her purse at the hotel. Flustered, she apologized for taking up the clerk's time, only to be told to simply take the item with her and come back to pay for it when it was convenient.
“That's customer service,” Aders said admiringly, “and the stores still take that approach.”
The first-class treatment Jenkins afforded his customers extended to his store managers as well. “I give them a free hand just as much as possible,” he said in 1965. “Even if I'm convinced an idea won't work, it's better to let a man spend a few hundred [dollars] to see for himself. He develops his resources that way, and his next idea probably will work.”
Jenkins was a hands-on executive who personally approved every initiative taken by Publix during his lifetime. “I make all the decisions — I have always run the business,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 1988.
He was an early advocate of building large stores with wide aisles, frozen food cases, open dairy cases, electric-eye doors, air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and paved parking lots; under Jenkins, Publix was also an early advocate of scanning and mechanized warehouses.
But sometimes Jenkins did not follow industry trends until forced to do so by competition. For example, it wasn't until 1983 that Jenkins opted to keep Publix open on Sundays. “We've been awfully proud of the fact that we could do in six days what others had to do in seven,” he said at the time.
Jenkins was active in industry affairs, serving as president of the Super Market Institute, FMI's predecessor organization, from 1961 to 1963 and also playing an active role in the National Association of Food Chains.
“George was very much an industry player,” said Byron Allumbaugh, retired chairman of Ralphs Grocery Co. and a former chairman of FMI. “He nurtured and grew his own business, but at the same time he had a much wider view of the industry as a whole. He was a strong booster of the Universal Product Code, for example, and an early supporter of scanning.”
Jenkins was an optimist, James Moody, retired chairman of Hannaford Bros. Markets, Scarborough, Maine, told SN, “and he had good reason to be, because the things he did worked out so well.”
Jenkins was born in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1907. His father operated a general store in nearby Harris, Ga., “that sold everything from coffins to collar buttons,” he recalled in a 1978 speech.
He said he learned about customer service early. Working at his father's store, “you had to provide the customer with what she really wanted, and you had to treat her with respect,” he pointed out.
In 1923, his father gave up the country store and moved to Atlanta to operate what Jenkins called “a tin grocery market.”
With no interest in going into the grocery business himself, 17-year-old Jenkins tried working at a series of jobs: driving a taxi and quitting after just one day when his fares didn't pay; hauling lumber from the railroad yard to the lumber mill, which he said taught him “that there had to be a better way to make a living”; and selling shoes.
In 1925, Jenkins decided to move to Florida, with ambitions to make a fortune in the booming real-estate market there. To earn money, he went to work at a Piggly Wiggly in Tampa as a stock clerk, and within a month was named manager of a store in St. Petersburg.
When the St. Petersburg store prospered, Jenkins was transferred to the company's biggest store, in Winter Haven, as manager. He was 18.
Within a few years, as the Depression set in and sales dropped, the chain was sold to an Atlanta operator “who never took the time to visit the store,” Jenkins recalled.
While on a trip back to Atlanta to visit his family, Jenkins decided to try to meet the new owner at his office but was told he was in an important conference and could not be disturbed — even though Jenkins could hear him talking about his last golf game.
“Right then I resolved that if I ever got to be a big shot in this business, I'd go around and visit the stores; and if anybody wanted to see me, they could walk right into my office,” he said. “When people work hard for me and want to discuss a problem that comes up, I don't want any closed doors stopping them.”
When he returned to Winter Haven, he quit his job, borrowed $2,000 and opened his own 1,700-square-foot store right next door. Jenkins said he called the store Publix because that was the name of a chain of local movie theaters, “and I liked the sound of the name, so I just took it for my stores.”
Within a year, Publix had put his former employer's store out of business, and four years later, in 1935, he used some of his profits to open a second store.
Jenkins also spent time traveling around to see what other grocery operators were doing, which inspired him, he said, “to start making plans for America's finest food store.”
In 1940, he mortgaged an orange grove he owned, closed his two existing stores and opened the prototype of “the marble, tile and stucco palaces that were to follow,” he said.
Jenkins suffered a stroke in 1989 that affected his speech and confined him to a wheelchair. Yet, he continued to visit stores and interact with employees until four days before he died in April 1996 at age 88.
“Despite his stroke, he always kept his spirits and enthusiasm high, often visiting with Publix employees in stores and distribution centers, encouraging them to continue his dream of making shopping a pleasure for everyone,” Howard Jenkins, his son and successor as chairman and CEO, told SN at the time.
George W. Jenkins
Publix Super Markets
Starting with a single store in 1930, Jenkins grew Publix to become Florida's dominant supermarket chain and one of the premier regional operators in the country. His focus on customer service and employee ownership became models for the industry. At his death in 1996, the company had 541 locations generating $9.4 billion in sales.