James Cash Penny’s first venture as a retail proprietor – a butchershop in Longmont, Colo. – opened in 1899 and failed almost immediately, after he refused to bribe an important local hotel chef with a weekly bottle of bourbon. “I lost everything I had,” said Penny, “but I learned never to compromise.”
Penny’s unwavering faith in the copybook maxims of his youth roused scepticism in a mercenary age, but his credo underlay his success. At his death in 1971, Penny, 95, left a 1.660-store empire that he built without compromising the stiff principles he had absorbed from three generations of Baptist preacher ancestors. He neither smoked nor drank, and for years demanded the same abstemious conduct from his employees. “I believe in adherence to the Golden Rule, faith in God and the country,” he often said. “I would rather be known as a Christian than a merchant.”
Until his final illness, he worked regularly at Penny’s mid-Manhattan headquarters, where he kept five secretaries busy with volumes of correspondence.