The Legacy of a Leader

By Diana Smith • Historical photos provided by Publix

The story of a person’s life is not about a series of chronological events or the places they have lived. The real story of a person’s life has more to do with who they were, how they made others feel, and how they inspired others. When we explore the life story of George Washington Jenkins Jr., we find the essence of a man whose personality captures the ideals of a true leader, a man who inspired everyone around him. Driven by a strong moral compass to do the right thing for the right reasons, this leader impressed with his strong work ethic and insatiable drive to connect with fellow human beings. It is this emotional intelligence that sets true leaders apart and why Mr. George’s legacy is much more than a supermarket.
Mister Little George, born in 1907 in Harris City, Georgia, to Annie and George Jenkins, was industrious from the get-go. Being a small-town merchant’s son, he found great pride in waiting on customers in his father’s grocery market. His sisters recall him running up and down the counter, filling orders with no regard for the actual order but, instead, finding the work itself to be rewarding: “He’d go tearing back there to get what the customer wanted — whether it was a dime’s worth of cheese or whatever.” From early on it was quite evident that he enjoyed being on the front line engaging with customers; he valued the service it provided. When he moved to Florida, his ambitious nature landed him a management position in the familiar industry. At the age of 17, he took a front-line position with Piggly Wiggly. He started at the very bottom — cleaning the floors and being a clerk. Within two months, by taking initiative and going beyond his duties, he was promoted to a store manager. At this time in his life, he attributed his drive to lessons of motivation from his mother and the knowledge of the grocery industry from his father. Those childhood lessons from his parents were influential, but something more would provoke Jenkins in his early adulthood, moving him to embark on a risky venture during an unstable economy. That something was the sheer desire to succeed in an industry that he loved and to prove, too, that there was a different way to do business, a different way to treat people. After successfully managing several Piggly Wiggly stores, Jenkins made a special trip to meet and talk with the new owner in Atlanta. He had big ideas for making this business better, and he wanted to develop a relationship with his employer. After making the long hike from Winter Haven to Atlanta, he wasn’t given the opportunity to meet with the executive. Instead, Jenkins sat outside of the owner’s closed door until being told that the owner was too busy to see him. We don’t know Jenkins’
exact thoughts on his ride home. But, somewhere in those eight hours, he must have come to the realization that his values and this owner’s values were not in line. Jenkins drove home and left a stable management position during the Depression to open his own store directly next to his previous employer. He and his team competitively battled it out with the Piggly Wiggly for three years until the Piggly Wiggly closed in 1933. He was 26 years old when they won that first battle. During the next seven years, he would acquire another store and tirelessly maintain the two, vowing to provide the very best service to his customers and the very best opportunities to his employees.

Anyone who knew Jenkins will tell you that he was the type of person who understood the value of a person’s dignity.

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Anyone who knew him will tell you that he was the type of person who understood the value of a person’s dignity. He had a deep respect for individual humanity. “He can feel just how any person feels in any situation,” describes John Turner, who was with Publix for over 41 years. Empathy was one of Jenkins’ hallmark traits that made him such an effective leader.
Many people have suggested that this quality was due to personal experiences he endured. Even though Jenkins’ father was a prominent merchant owner in their small town, the family suffered and was exposed to loss and hardship in their farming community in Georgia. In addition to watching his parents’ home and grocery store burn to the ground, each at different times, Jenkins witnessed the hardships that most farmers typically endured. Then, in his adolescence, Jenkins witnessed an entire community become destitute when the boll weevil slowly wiped out cotton crops. The boll weevil first hit when he was about 12 years old. By the time he was 15, most of his neighbors were left with nothing. Whether it was these experiences or his innate personality, Jenkins exhibited a keen sensitivity to the understanding that we each have a story.
However, it was not his empathy alone that set him apart as such an ingenious leader. His effectiveness was in how he used that understanding of the human condition to treat others and to cultivate a company culture of loyalty. He was able to develop a connection and communicate with everyone. “It didn’t matter if you were an associate on the front line bagging groceries or you were a vice president of a division, he gave you respect and wanted to listen to what you had to say,” says retired Regional Director Ron Losch. All through Jenkins’ career as a leader, he exhibited an understanding of the synergistic relationship between giving and getting respect. Overall, he genuinely wanted to create an environment that generated pride and self-esteem, which would, in turn, make people feel valued and respected. This environment and philosophy perpetuated a drive and loyalty in his employees that would be required as he grew his business.
In 1952, 22 years after opening his very first store and at the age of only 47 years old, Jenkins had 21 stores, 19 of which were acquired. However, he would focus on even more expansion over the next three decades. By 1979, Jenkins owned 235 stores, several warehouse distribution centers, bakeries, dairy storage and dairy distribution centers; he employed 25,000 people. During this time, his role as a leader was just as significant as it was in the beginning stages of his career. The expansion of his business meant relying more and more on others to value and uphold his philosophies. Jenkins genuinely acknowledged that, “One of the most important lessons [he] learned in [his] business career is that no man puts together an organization on his own.”
As the founder and leader of a growing and successful organization, Jenkins went to great lengths to perpetuate his philosophies of valuing the individual. From details like supplying truck drivers with comfortable seats and offering a free cafeteria for employees, to visiting stores and meeting front-line associates, gestures of appreciation were especially important to Jenkins. He once told Losch that,

If you take care of your people, they will take care of your business.

Even though he was conscious of using strategic motivational tactics as management tools, his motives did not necessarily originate in his profitable interests as a business owner. He sincerely valued his employees and wanted them know it and believe it. He never wanted to be that executive, like the Piggly Wiggly owner, who didn’t visit his stores and kept his door closed. In fact, he had an open-door policy and welcomed anyone to come talk with him.
In 1975, his business set up an Employee Stock Ownership Trust, an initiative that he started with the first store. In the early days of his career, he gave his employees stock in the company by giving them raises and, then, using that money to pay for the stock. Today, that chain of supermarkets is the largest employee-owned organization in the America.
The tangible ownership that Jenkins offered to his employees was not nearly as important as his intangible managerial style would be to his company. According to Pete Newsome, who retired as Publix’s Miami area divisional vice president after 50 years of service, Jenkins led from the front, setting an example of work ethic that others wanted to emulate. He had tremendous knowledge of the grocery industry and wanted to share that knowledge with everyone. He wasn’t a micromanager; he set clear expectations of the service and standards but gave his employees the respect and freedom to make decisions on their own. Allowing this ownership over departments, stores, and divisions created a sense of pride and responsibility in the individual. He or she felt that Jenkins gave them the opportunity to succeed or fail, but the bottom line was that it was up to him or her to follow through. Jenkins told employees that their company was “like a smorgasbord, spread out for you. Prepare yourself. The opportunities are up for grabs.” Working up from clerks and baggers, many have taken him up
on that challenge and spent their lives dedicated to the organization and to him.
Joe Newsome, Pete Newsome’s father who started out as a truck driver, retired in the 1970s after 45 years with the company. After Mr. Newsome’s retirement, he approached Jenkins and said, “You took a man who had, you know, nothing but hard work at his disposal. You gave me the chance and the opportunity to become more than I ever aspired to be. And I just want you to know that I appreciate it. I want to thank you.”
Pete Newsome said that his father told him, “I’ve always wanted to do that. I couldn’t do that while I was still working because it wouldn’t look right. I didn’t want to do it at the retirement ceremony in front of all those people. But I just wanted him to know that I felt that way. He gave me the chance to get ahead.” And then Pete said, “He gave me the same thing.”
Monte Thornton, who retired in 1994 after 43 years with the company: “You learn to be a leader. You learn honesty and integrity. Most of all, I think, you learn respect for the dignity of
others. Mr. Jenkins taught me a long time ago to practice the Golden Rule — to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you follow that basic principle, you’re going to achieve what you want. I apply it and teach it to the people who work with me.”
There are countless stories of gratitude, respect, and admiration that make up the legacy of George Jenkins. These stories show a better way for business and an exemplary style of leadership. So often in business, leaders and entrepreneurs lose sight of why they are in business. They often become consumed with profit or with their own story. Jenkins started with why from the very beginning: he wanted to treat people well and respected their time and energy. He understood that customers deserved the very best service; as a leader, he understood that his employees deserved respect and appreciation. More important than a grocery chain and all of its profits, his legacy is the effect he has had on hundreds of thousands
of people who have worked for him or knew of him. It is their stories and the lessons they learned from him that will go forward. During a pre-opening banquet, Jenkins told his front-line associates, “You may not be with Publix five years from now, but the experience you will pick up in our store will stay with you.”