A Business of Millions Managed by a Woman
As Head of One of the Largest Departmental Stores on the Continent, Mrs. Charles Netcher Gives Some Pronounced Views on Her Business and Its Conduct — An Establishment Where Every Question of Policy is Taken Up and Decided on Its Own Individual Merits.
Mark H. Salt
THERE are few women who guide and absolutely control the destinies of a great business—a business that in the aggregate amounts to many millions a year. There is a general idea among men that women are lacking in some of the essential qualities that bring about commercial success; that she is too yielding by nature, too tender-hearted, not enough of a grabber and pusher to make an effective competitor against the aggressive man of business. Yet Chicago has one woman merchant who is
guiding the fortunes of one of the greatest department stores in the world, and doing it in a quiet and unostentatious way, without any blowing of horns or brass band methods. This woman is Airs. Charles Netcher, proprietor of the Boston Store, the conduct of which she took up on the death of her husband four years ago. In those four years the Boston Store has been transformed as if by a magician’s wand. It has doubled and probably quadrupled in size, and its' yearly volume of sales have kept pace with the enlargement of its quarters. To-day the business is at its highest stage of prosperity, and its trade will vie with that of any other house in similar lines.
There are no reasons for Airs. Netcher’s success other than her own ability and devotion to business. Naturally one would think that she would have acquired a certain degree of familiarity with the details of the business through the conversation of her husband during his lifetime. As a matter of fact, the one thing that Air. Netcher would not do when at home was to discuss business. It was practically an agreed thing between husband and wife that business should be tabooed when he was at home. “I get enough of business at the store,” he said, “and we can find other subjects of interest at home.”
“In a general way only,” said Airs. Netcher, “I was conversant with my husband’s business affairs. He was very reticent on such matters. Frequently I would notice that he was worried, and then I always understood that he was thinking over business matters. I knew that he was purchasing property for the enlargement of the store, but it has hap-
pened that he had an important deal closed and my first information about it came from reading of it in the papers.”
When called upon to take the helm, Mrs. Netcher was not entirely a novice, however. It was probably as much her natural talent for business as any other reason that attracted Mr. Netcher to her in the first place. She was not entirely ignorant of her husband’s plans and ambitions for the development and enlargement of his store. These plans had been only partly worked out at the time of his death, but they had been generally formulated. The property on which the additional store buildings were to be erected had been acquired, but the work of demolishing the old buildings standing on the property had not yet been begun, nor were the plans for the new one determined upon. All this Mrs. Netcher had to attend to herself, and at the same time see that the store was run along the usual lines while those great changes were taking place. The success with which this was done is apparent in the fine store that is to-day known as the Boston.
Charles Netcher, the founder of the Boston Store, was a firm believer in the gospel of work. In all the years in which he was in business it is not on record that hé ever took a vacation. The only times that he was ever absent from his business was when he was away buying goods. He was among the first down to the store in the morning and the last to leave it at night—provided he left at all. In the early years of the business it was not an uncommon thing for him to work until late at night and then make his bed on one of the counters. Mrs. Netcher possesses the same capacity for work that her husband did. In the four years in which she has been in control of the business she has never been absent a day from it. When other women of wealth are enjoying themselves at the seashore during the heated term Mrs. Netcher will be found at her desk in her little office at the store.
Here she maintains regular business hours, and here the details of the great business are daily focussed under her eye in the shape of reports and by inter-
views with her principal lieutenants. It must not be inferred from this, however, that Mrs. Netcher is either a recluse or a hermit. She is neither, but takes a decided interest in many matters not connected with her business. Her principal recreations are in her home with her four children, in automobiling, and in her church, she being a devout believer in the teachings of Christian Science.
In appearance this merchant princess is of rather imposing presence, being of a robust build and impressing one with the air of calmness and perfect selfpossession she displays. She is probably forty years old, with black eyes and black hair, in which there is as yet no sign of gray. She has pronounced views on her business and its conduct.
“I have no hard and fast theoretical set of rules for the conduct of the business,” she said to the writer. “Every question of policy is taken up and decided on its individual merits. That was Mr. Netcher’s way of conducting his business. In all matters he was the final judge, no matter what it was about the store. He was thoroughly conversant with merchandise of all grades, and while he had to rely on the judgment of his buyers in a great degree, yet they knew his ways and opinions. I don’t do any buying myself, but if it was necessary I could, as I am familiar with every article the store deals in. When I say that I do not do any buying, I mean that I do not have salesmen coming to my office to solicit orders. Buying is one of the most important details of my business, and every bill purchased or every order placed comes under my immediate notice. In the case of an unusual order in magnitude I would have to be consulted by my mcrchandizer, and I would decide as to the advisability of the purchase.
“That explains in a measure what I mean when I say that I have no theoretical set of rules in the business. Here is a better illustration of the same point. In most large stores such as mine there is a certain sum for the purchase of stock allotted to each department. We will say that a certain department has had $20,000 allotted to it and has expended the money. Along comes a manufac-
turer with a lot of goods that he is willing to sell at 50 cents on the dollar. Now, in the average store, the buyer would be debarred from making the purchase because he had exhausted the appropriation. My buyer would complete the purchase at once.
“There is hardly a day of the year that I do not make one or more trips of inspection through the store. People who imagine that I sit in my office all day are much mistaken. When I go through the store I m¿Py notice something that does not appear businesslike to me, and I at once call the attention of the superintendent to it. It may be only a small detail, but I believe in looking after details. I will observe things and comment upon them that a man would consider of little importance, but business is made up of details, and if you look carefully after the details the larger operations will take care of themselves.
“There are many reasons for the success of the Boston Store. One reason is that it is the bargain centre of Chicago. We have facilities for buying at the lowest price and we use them. We never contract bills, consequently we have no complicated accounts to be kept. Buying for cash we are always able to buy at much better advantage than a merchant who buys on time. The cash buyer will always get a much better price and a much better discount. The greater part of our merchandise is paid for before it ever enters the store, and many of our purchases in the eastern markets are frequently paid for before they are shipped to us. We give our customers the benefit of our ability to buy cheaply and are content with moderate profits. If a manufacturer or a merchant has a lot of goods that they are unable to swing and they need the money the chances are that they will come to us. We will take them for cash at a price, no matter how big a stock it is.
“Buying for cash we always sell for cash. We never have any debts owing to us. We also stimulate the interest of our employes by giving them an interest in everything that they sell. This is generally 5 per cent., but sometimes it is more. It depends entirely on the
clerk, then, how much he or she makes, because a percentage is paid on everything that is sold. We do not pay high salaries, but with the aid of the percentage system our clerks make the best wages that are paid by any department store in the city. In some departments it is not unusual for the clerks to make from $25 to $35 per week, and in others from $50 to $60. We used some years ago to pay this percentage every day, based on the sales of the preceding day. Now we pay it once a week with the salaries. It is much better for the clerk to get the percentage money in a lump than in daily driblets. In the latter way they are more apt to spend it foolishly, but when they get a good sized sum they will be more apt to save.
“By this system we enlist the hearty co-operation of our employes, with the result that at any time we are enabled to take our pick if we need more men or women. This is our idea of co-operation, and it works well for both sides. It keeps the interest of the employe concentrated on the work and stimulates the sales.
“We advertise largely, both in newspapers and by billboards. We keep the public thoroughly informed of what we have to offer and the prices. We pay for our advertising space the same as we do for our merchandise. The day after it has appeared in a paper we pay for it. we would just as soon pay for it at the time of insertion, the only reason we do not do so being that we may have the opportunity of checking up the advertisement on space and for correctness.
“In time I expect my sons will enter the business and relieve me of much of the burden. First they will finish their education. My oldest son is now eighteen and he will soon enter Yale. Some people have an idea that a university education is not an essential for a business man. Perhaps it is not; I believe that it will not detract from their usefulness in the world. It is also considered by many persons that the only way for a young man to make a success is by working up from the bottom, and in a measure I agree with this theory. But it is not always possible for a boy
to do this; it is not possible for my sons to-do so. They will have to begin nearer the top than the bottom, but with the advantage of a liberal education I have no fear that they will prove lacking in capacity when their time comes. They will always have the assistance of men and women who have grown up in the business, some of our employes who now fill responsible positions, having been with the house almost from its foundation.”
Of the details of her business Mrs. Netcher, in so far as it relates to the growth and magnitude of the annual turnover, is reluctant to talk., When asked to state what the expansion had been since Mr. Netcher’s death, she smilingly said:
“That is something I would rather not talk about. It was one of the rules of my husband not to divulge the details of his business. I believe his policy was a wise one and I follow it.
“Mr. Netcher had no diversions aside from his business and his home. Winter or summer he was down at the store at 6:30 in the morning and would generally get home at 7:30 in the evening. His reading was confined to the daily papers and the Bible. I believe that he had read the Bible six or seven times. He was passionately devoted to his children and nothing afforded him more enjoyment than to play with them.
“He had been with the Pardridges about two years in Buffalo and was then getting $4 a week. There was another store in the same city that offered him a position at $8 a week. Boylike, he was anxious to make more money and was inclined to accept this offer, which was from the model store of the city. He talked to his mother about it, and she was very much opposed to his making a change. ‘You stick where you are.. Charlie,’ she said, ‘and you will be all right.’
“The thing that determined Mr. Netcher, however, was the fact that in Pardridge’s he had an opportunity to work in every department of the store, while if he had taken the offer he would have been confined to one department Knowledge was what he was after, and
the fact that he did not make the change was a most fortunate one for him.”
Any story of the Boston Store would be incomplete without a sketch of its founder. Mr. Netcher was American born but of German descent. He began his business career in Buffalo, N.Y. where be obtained his first situation at the age of 14 in the store of C. W. & E. Pardridge. This was in 1865, and his first job was carrying bundles. C. W. Pardridge, who gave the boy his first job, told about it afterward in the following words :
“He was clinging to his mother’s skirt, not in an embarrassed way, but with a sort of an air of doubt. His mother asked me if we were in need of any boys. As a matter of fact we were not, as the sixty or seventy positions we had to offer were filled. I was on the point of telling her so when I looked down at the boy by her side. He was gazing into my face, his eyes scanning me expectantly. There was a sort of determined look about the boy which appealed to me.
“‘What can you do?’ I asked him.
“ ‘Anything,’ he replied, in a matter of fact way, looking me square in the eyes.
“ ‘Well, we don’t really need a boy, but I guess I’ll hire him anyway,’ I remarked to his mother, and he threw off his coat and went to work. This was how Charles Netcher got his first job. He started in as a bundle carrier. His salary was $1.50 a week. There were perhaps seventy boys employed in the store at the time, and yet from the first day he worked for us he seemed to stand out above the rest. He never seemed to care much for the pleasures that appealed to the other boys. His eyes always were on business. And, above all, he was not afraid to work. He did all that was required of him, did it willingly and cheerfully. And he didn’t stop at this. He always was looking for something to do As a boy Mr. Netcher was extremely quiet. Pie talked little, and when he did speak he usually limited his conversation to brief sentences which were forceful and expressive. But he was a good thinker. I remember one day when we were considering the advisability of mov-
ing our business to Chicago. Mr. Netcher had then been in our employ several years and had risen from the position of bundle boy to inspector. We were immensely fond of him, and it occurred to me that we might bring him along in case he cared to come. I called him into the office and said, ‘Charley, how would you like to go to Chicago to live? Do you want to go there and work for us? Without deliberating or asking questions he replied, ‘Yes, sir.’
“That anstver indicates the character of man Mr. Netcher was. His mind appeared always to be made up, and when once he set out to accomplish anything it was as good as done. He was a man of few words, but an incessant thinker, and his capacity for work seemed unlimited.”
From the time he began work for the Pardridges Mr. Netcher’s rise was continuous. He went from position to position, always stepping a little higher each time. And always he saved money, although his salary was never a large one, never more than $25 a week until in 1873 he was given a working interest in the firm. He allowed himself nothing for luxuries and reduced his necessities to a minimum.
I11 1873 the Pardridges gave Mr. Netcher an interest of 10 per cent, of the profits of the store in addition to his salary. It was then that he originated the name of “Boston Store,” which the establishment has ever since maintained. As the business grew Mr. Netcher’s income also grew, but he continued living at the same frugal rate as formerly, saving his additional income. In time his percentage of the profits was increased. From his savings he was able in time to buy an additional interest. This from time to time he increased until in 1899 he was able to buy the sole proprietorship of the store from the man who had given him his first position as a bundle boy.
After having acquired the sole ownership of the business Mr. Netcher began to carry out the plans he had formed for its enlargement. This required the purchase outright or the acquirement on long time lease of the entire south half of the block extending from State to Dearborn Streets with the Madison Street
frontage. He had just about concluded the acquisition of this property when he was taken ill, and after an operation for appendicitis died after a short illness.
Mr. Netcher’s ideas of work, thrift and economy were well set forth in his will, lie specifically stipulated that none of his children should be so provided for as to permit extravagance or a life of idleness. The clause covering this condition reads:
“In making all payments hereinabove and hereinafter provided, as well as in all other expenditures for the support or benefit of my said children, or any of them, or any of their children, it is my wish that the then existing size and income of my estate and of their respective interests therein shall be carefully considered, and that while my children should be encouraged and assisted in all habits of thrift and industry, they should not be given the means of extravagance or idleness.”
The will provides that until each child is 25 years of age the trustee shall expend such sums as appear necessary for the education and support of the child. After the child has reached the age of 25 years the trustee may pay over semiannually the net income of each specific trust fund or may give the child the sum of $25,000. When the child reaches the age of 30 years $100,000 may be given him to invest in business.
The high estimation in which Mr. Netcher held his wife’s capacity for business was given a striking illustration by his will, under which she was made the sole trustee, with absolute control over the estate. It was a subject on which he thought strongly, the disposition of property by will, and he was frequently known to make comments upon the disposition of large estates and the manner of their control. But so strong was his confidence in the business qualifications of his wife that he was perfectly satisfied that she could undertake the conduct of his store and _ carry it forward to the commanding position that he had marked out in his own mind for it. The result has been a most striking example of the correctness of his judgment.