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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edward L. Gruber, November 11, 1985. Interview C-0136. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Forging a business relationship with department store chains

Gruber describes his decision to do business with large department store chains, such as J.C. Penney's. His father had refused to sell to department stores, but Gruber explains that in 1933 when the Depression was at its zenith it seemed to be the most effective strategy for Spring City Mills. He describes his initial meeting with a J.C. Penney's representative—whom he later identifies as Ross Dillon—and the deal they made for Spring City Mills to produce ten thousand "three-packs" of underwear. Later in the interview, Gruber explains how Dillon served as a mentor of sorts in urging him to expand his business. This moment marked Spring City Mills entrance into the national market and the beginnings of their financial success during a time of economic crisis.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edward L. Gruber, November 11, 1985. Interview C-0136. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My father had sold underwear through the jobbers. He wouldn't let me sell to the chain stores; Penny's or Sears, or Montgomery Ward or anybody like that because over here in Spring City at one time there was seven cast iron stove plants. They made kitchen stoves and things like that; then they modernized them a little bit and put a gas burner one side; then along came the electric stoves and the cast iron stoves went out, but in the meantime those stoves plants in Spring City and Rorey's Ford started going broke one by one. They sold to Sears, Roebuck and Sears would take all they could make and they could tell them the next year what the price would be and they would go broke - then they would go to the next one and they'd go broke, so he forbade me to do business with any of the chain stores. This was at the bottom of the depression - in '33 the banks closed; there was no business at all, but I went up to Penny's in Pottstown and got some of their samples and I took them back and made samples and I took them up and I showed it to the buyer. I said, "This is what I bought in the store and here's what I can make for you and what I made is so much better than what you have." This fellow turned blue in the face - this was around ten o'clock in the morning-and he says, "Young man you go out and sit down, I want to talk to you later on." I sat there until 12 o'clock and he took me out to lunch. He sat there and he started to tell me, "Never, never tell a buyer that you can make something better than what he's buying, because that'a reflecting on his ability." He spent about 2 hours lecturing me on how to talk to a buyer and how to sell underwear for about 2 hours. When I first walked in his office he said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I got about a hundred people over there in Spring City that have to eat and I don't have any business for them, and you sell more underwear than anybody else in the country that I know of. I'd like to sell you about 10,000 dozen. That will keep these people working so they can eat." He said, "What makes you think that everyone else that we have been buying from is not in the same position." I said, "Well, I'm going to make it better and cheaper too. The main thing is, I want my plant to be your warehouse. You have little stores and you don't have room to store stuff and when you want it I'll ship it the same day you send me the order." Well I went home that night, after getting a lecture, figuring I'd never get back in his place again. I opened the mail the next moring and there was an order in the mail for 25,000 dozen at $1.6½ a dozen; I had quoted him a $1.57½. So I called him on the telephone and told him about the difference. He said, "I thought I told you yesterday never to criticize a buyer. At a $1.57½ a dozen you'll go broke; at a $1.62½ you can make some money. How fast can you make it?" I said, "Thank you sir. I told how fast I could make it and he didn't believe me. He said he wanted to know every day how many dozen finished goods we had in inventory. In a couple of weeks time I had about 10,000 dozen. He didn't believe I had them. I was counting the dozens that were going to be finished within the next day or two. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon, and he said, "I want you to ship 10,000 today." We had to work until about eleven o'clock that night to get the 10,000, but we shipped it. So that's how I got in with Penny's.