Richard Warren Sears is one of my favorite characters in American history. He truly was a marketing genius, a fascinating entrepreneur and a real family man. Throughout his life, he maintained a deep and profound devotion to his family.
Richard Warren Sears was about 16 years old when his father died. That’s when Richard went to work to support the family.
By the mid-1880s, he’d found gainful employment as a railway station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. Early in his career, Sears paid a mere $50 for a shipment of watches that arrived at the train station and had been refused by a local merchant. Selling them to other railway agents and passengers, Sears turned $50 worth of watches into $5000 in a few months.
His timing could not possibly have been any better.
With the advent of the steam locomotive, people could now travel easily throughout the country, but there was one problem with all this zipping to and fro: In the early 1880s, our country had 300 time zones.
Many rural communities still relied on sun-time. Travelers headed west we’re expected to subtract one minute for every 12 miles of travel. Travelers headed east did the opposite.
Hope youre good at ciphering!
In November 1883, railway companies lobbied Congress to establish four time zones, to help standardize complicated train schedules. And what need did this new-fangled law breed? Watches.
Suddenly, they were a very hot commodity.
In 1886, 23-year-old Sears invested his $5000 cash profit into a new watch business and called it the R. W. Sears Watch Company. He advertised in regional newspapers and soon moved the business from Minneapolis to Chicago.
Occasionally the watches came back needing repairs, so in 1887, Sears decided it was time to hire a helper. A young watch repairman from Hammond, Indiana responded to Sears help wanted ad and was hired immediately.
And what was the watch repairman’s name?
Alvah Curtis Roebuck.
Richard and Alvah became good friends and eventually partners.
In 1891, Sears and Roebuck published their first mail order catalog (52 pages), offering jewelry and watches. By 1893, the little catalog had grown to 196 pages and offered a variety of items, including sewing machines, shoes, saddles and more. By the following year, the catalog hit 507 pages.
In 1895, Alvah Roebuck decided he wanted out. The 31-year old watch repairman’s health was collapsing under the strain of this new fast-growing business. The enormous burden of debt coupled with Sears wild ways of doing business were too much for mild-mannered, methodical Alvah.
He asked Sears to buy his one-third interest in the company for $25,000.
Of course, Sears didn’t have that kind of cash on hand, so he offered Chicago businessmen Aaron Nusbaum and Julius Rosenwald (Nusbaums brother-in-law) a one-half interest in the company. The price – $75,000, or $37,500 each. Six years later, in 1901, Rosenwald and Sears decided to buy out Nusbaum and offered him $1 million for his share of the business. Nusbaum refused and asked for $1.25 million, which he received.
(Pretty tidy profit for six years!)
Following a nationwide depression in 1907, Rosenwald and Sears were at loggerheads on the best course of action to weather the economic storm. This disagreement really did highlight their radically different concepts about everything.
On November 1, 1908, 44-year-old Richard W. Sears emerged from a terse, closed-door meeting with Rosenwald and announced that he would resign as President from his own company.
Sears reason for retiring: He didnt see the work as fun anymore. A short time later, Sears sold his stock for $10 million dollars. There was another reason for his departure. Sears wanted more time to take care of his ailing wife, who had suffered from ill health for years.
In September 1914, at the age of 50, Sears died from kidney disease, having turned $50 worth of pocket watches into a multimillion dollar mail-order empire. His estate was valued at more than $20 million.
Not too bad for a kid that got his start selling unwanted watches at a little train depot in Redwood Falls.
Did you know that Sears sold cars in the 1950s? You’ll never guess the brand name they gave to their vehicles! 🙂
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