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How Marshall Field Succeeded

February 21, 2011

Tags BiographiesFree MarketsEntrepreneurship

[Marshall Field (1834–1906) was a self-made businessman and founder of the highly successful department-store chain that bore his name. At the age of 18 he moved to Chicago — then only a fledgling city —and worked his way to the top of the commercial world there, weathering multiple recessions and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This interview is taken from chapter 1 of How They Succeeded (1901).]

This world-renowned merchant is not easily accessible to interviews, and he seeks no fame for his business achievements. Yet there is no story more significant, none more full of encouragement and inspiration for youth.

In relating it as he told it, I have removed my own interrogations, so far as possible, from the interview.

"I was born in Conway, Massachusetts," he said, "in 1835. My father's farm was among the rocks and hills of that section, and not very fertile. All the people were poor in those days. My father was a man who had good judgment, and he made a success out of the farming business. My mother was of a more intellectual bent. Both my parents were anxious that their boys should amount to something in life, and their interest and care helped me.

"I had but few books, scarcely any to speak of. There was not much time for literature. Such books as we had, I made use of.

"I had a leaning toward business, and took up with it as early as possible. I was naturally of a saving disposition: I had to be. Those were saving times. A dollar looked very big to us boys in those days; and as we had difficult labor in earning it, we did not quickly spend it.

"I however, determined not to remain poor."

"Did you attend both school and college?"

"I attended the common and high schools at home, but not long. I had no college training. Indeed, I cannot say that I had much of any public-school education. I left home when 17 years of age, and of course had not time to study closely.

"My first venture in trade was made as clerk in a country store at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where everything was sold, including dry goods. There I remained for four years and picked up my first knowledge of business.

"I saved my earnings and attended strictly to business, and so made those four years valuable to me. Before I went west, my employer offered me a quarter interest in his business if I would remain with him. Even after I had been here several years, he wrote and offered me a third interest if I would go back.

"But I was already too well placed. I was always interested in the commercial side of life. To this I bent my energies, and I always thought I would be a merchant.

"In Chicago, I entered as a clerk in the dry goods house of Cooley, Woodsworth & Co., in South Water Street. There was no guarantee at that time that this place would ever become the western metropolis; the town had plenty of ambition and pluck, but the possibilities of greatness were hardly visible."

It is interesting to note in this connection how closely the story of Mr. Field's progress is connected with Chicago's marvelous growth. The city itself in its relations to the West was an opportunity.

A parallel, almost exact, may be drawn between the individual career and the growth of the town. Chicago was organized in 1837, two years after Mr. Field was born on the far-off farm in New England, and the place then had a population of a little more than 4,000. In 1856, when Mr. Field, fully equipped for a successful mercantile career, became a resident of the future metropolis of the West, the population had grown to little more than 84,000. Mr. Field's prosperity advanced with the growth of the city; with Chicago he was stricken but not crushed by the great fire of 1871; and with Chicago he advanced again to higher achievement and far-greater prosperity than before the calamity.

"What were your equipments for success when you started as a clerk here in Chicago, in 1856?"

"Health and ambition, and what I believe to be sound principles," answered Mr. Field. "And here I found that in a growing town, no one had to wait for promotion. Good business qualities were promptly discovered, and men were pushed forward rapidly.

"After four years, in 1860, I was made a partner, and in 1865, there was a partial reorganization, and the firm consisted after that of Mr. Leiter, Mr. Palmer, and myself (Field, Palmer, and Leiter). Two years later Mr. Palmer withdrew, and until 1881, the style of the firm was Field, Leiter & Co. Mr. Leiter retired in that year, and since then it has been as at present (Marshall Field & Co.)."

"What contributed most to the great growth of your business?" I asked.

"To answer that question," said Mr. Field, "would be to review the condition of the West from the time Chicago began until the fire in 1871. Everything was coming this way: immigration, railways, and water traffic, and Chicago was enjoying 'flush' times.

"There were things to learn about the country, and the man who learned the quickest fared the best. For instance, the comparative newness of rural communities and settlements made a knowledge of local solvency impossible. The old state-banking system prevailed, and speculation of every kind was rampant.

"The panic of 1857 swept almost everything away except the house I worked for, and I learned that the reason they survived was because they understood the nature of the new country and did a cash business. That is, they bought for cash, and sold on 30 and 60 days; instead of giving the customers, whose financial condition you could hardly tell anything about, all the time they wanted. When the panic came, they had no debts, and little owing to them, and so they weathered it all right. I learned what I consider my best lesson, and that was to do a cash business."

"What were some of the principles you applied to your business?" I questioned.

"I made it a point that all goods should be exactly what they were represented to be. It was a rule of the house that an exact scrutiny of the quality of all goods purchased should be maintained, and that nothing was to induce the house to place upon the market any line of goods at a shade of variation from their real value. Every article sold must be regarded as warranted, and every purchaser must be enabled to feel secure."

"Did you suffer any losses or reverses during your career?"

"No loss except by the fire of 1871. It swept away everything — about $3.5 million. We were, of course, protected by insurance, which would have been sufficient against any ordinary calamity of the kind. But the disaster was so sweeping that some of the companies which had insured our property were blotted out, and a long time passed before our claims against others were settled. We managed, however, to start again. There were no buildings of brick or stone left standing, but there were some great shells of horse-car barns at State and 20th streets which were not burned, and I hired those. We put up signs announcing that we would continue business uninterruptedly, and then rushed the work of fitting things up and getting in the stock."

"Did the Panic of 1873 affect your business?"

"Not at all. We did not have any debts."

"May I ask you, Mr. Field, what you consider to have been the turning point in your career — the point after which there was no more danger?"

"Saving the first $5,000 I ever had, when I might just as well have spent the moderate salary I made. Possession of that sum, once I had it, gave me the ability to meet opportunities. That I consider the turning point."

"What trait of character do you look upon as having been the most essential in your career?"

"Perseverance," said Mr. Field. But Mr. [Harry Gordon] Selfridge, his most trusted lieutenant, in whose private office we were, insisted upon the addition of "good judgment" to this.

"If I am compelled to lay claim to such traits," added Mr. Fields, "it is because I have tried to practice them, and the trying has availed me much. I have tried to make all my acts and commercial moves the result of definite consideration and sound judgment. There were never any great ventures or risks. I practiced honest, slow-growing business methods, and tried to back them with energy and good system."

At this point, in answer to further questions, Mr. Field disclaimed having overworked in his business, although after the fire of '71 he worked about 18 hours a day for several weeks:

"My fortune, however, has not been made in that manner. I believe in reasonable hours, but close attention during those hours. I never worked very many hours a day. People do not work as many hours now as they once did. The day's labor has shortened in the last 20 years for everyone."

"What, Mr. Field," I said, "do you consider to be the first requisite for success in life, so far as the young beginner is concerned?"

"The qualities of honesty, energy, frugality, and integrity are more necessary than ever today, and there is no success without them. They are so often urged that they have become commonplace, but they are really more prized than ever. And any good fortune that comes by such methods is deserved and admirable."

"Do you believe a college education for the young man to be a necessity in the future?"

"Not for business purposes. Better training will become more and more a necessity. The truth is, with most young men, a college education means that just at the time when they should be having business principles instilled into them, and be getting themselves energetically pulled together for their life's work, they are sent to college. Then intervenes what many a young man looks back on as the jolliest time of his life — four years of college. Often when he comes out of college the young man is unfitted by this good time to buckle down to hard work, and the result is a failure to grasp opportunities that would have opened the way for a successful career."

As to retiring from business, Mr. Field remarked:

I do not believe that, when a man no longer attends to his private business in person every day, he has given up interest in affairs. He may be, in fact should be, doing wider and greater work.

There certainly is no pleasure in idleness. A man, upon giving up business, does not cease laboring, but really does or should do more in a larger sense. He should interest himself in public affairs. There is no happiness in mere dollars. After they are acquired, one can use but a moderate amount. It is given a man to eat so much, to wear so much, and to have so much shelter, and more he cannot use. When money has supplied these, its mission, so far as the individual is concerned, is fulfilled, and man must look further and higher. It is only in the wider public affairs, where money is a moving force toward the general welfare, that the possessor of it can possibly find pleasure, and that only in constantly doing more.

"What," I said, "in your estimation, is the greatest good a man can do?"

"The greatest good he can do is to cultivate himself, develop his powers, in order that he may be of greater use to humanity."

 

[This interview is taken from chapter 1 of How They Succeeded (1901).]

 


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