Maxey Jarman

fred smithIn our very first issue of LEADERSHIP, we ran an extensive interview with Fred Smith. It evoked the strongest response of anything we’ve published to date. We’ve had many requests since then to get Fred into these pages again.

It seems only natural for his first article this year to be about Maxey Jarman, who passed away last fall at age seventy-six. He influenced Fred a great deal. Here was a man who took a company from 75 employees to 75,000, making Genesco in the late ’60s the world’s largest apparel company. Yet when reverses came, Maxey maintained a tremendous spiritual resiliency and kept contributing energetically, without bitterness, to many Christian causes. He was a man who rose to the very top in business, yet was uncompromising in his spiritual commitments.

From his close relationship with him over forty-three years, Fred gives us insights into Maxey Jarman’s character and practices.

I first met Maxey Jarman back in the mid-thirties when I was about twenty. I had been teaching a Sunday school class in a nurses’ training program at Nashville General Hospital. One of the nurses became an industrial nurse, and she introduced me to her boss, the director of personnel. I said to myself, “I’d like a job like that.” I had no training or experience, but I knew General Shoe (later Genesco) was one company in town where there might be such a position. So, I decided to meet Maxey Jarman, the president.

Maxey always bought gas at the station next to the plant. I waited until he drove up in his red Chrysler, then walked over and introduced myself. We just shook hands; he probably thought it was very strange, for in his early thirties he wasn’t very gregarious.

Mary Alice and I had just married and rented out one of our two bedrooms to a factory worker at General Shoe. She told me of some labor problems at work, and I called Mr. Jarman and offered my viewpoint. He invited me to his office. We had a very short conversation, and I heard no more about it. But he impressed me so much that when I heard he taught a Sunday school class, I started attending. They had me lead singing and eventually elected me president of the class.

Maxey Jarman

Maxey Jarman

One Wednesday night after church in 1941, Maxey invited me to have a Coke at the Rexall Drug Store. We sat on fountain stools, and he asked me what I planned to do in life. “I’d like to be a personnel man,” I told him. He asked if I’d ever had any experience, and I said, “No, I’ve never even seen a personnel department. But I met a guy who’s a personnel man, and I’d like that kind of work.”

That night I told Mary Alice I thought he would offer me a job, and no matter what he offered, I was going to take it because he was a man I wanted to be associated with. I sensed then I wanted to be with him for life. There was something significantly different about this man. Being a preacher’s kid in the poor end of town, I’d become somewhat cynical about Christians. But Maxey personified reality. This was so valuable to me at that time . . . Here was a real man, a genuine person; and our years of friendship intensified that evaluation. When he offered me an opening in personnel, I was elated.

I had never seen a man so serious about wanting to reach the truth. For forty-three years I wrote my observations of Maxey on scraps of paper, everything from church bulletins to napkins, and last year I compiled them-500 pages of separate paragraphs. Then I spent three weeks at the lake doing little but reading them and thinking. When I told him about this, he said, “I’m amazed. What a waste of time!”

I’ve learned much from Maxey, but for this article I’ll distill just a little. I started to say, “Some of these principles, perhaps, you will want to emulate.” But Maxey would have been embarrassed to be held up as an example.

Maxey had an awesome sense of responsibility. He was not only involved, he was enveloped in what he did. He treated every responsibility as a “call,” but never named it that. The Sunday night Maxey was taken to the hospital barely able to breathe, he kept delaying because he was to speak at the evening service and “The pastor is counting on me.” One of his favorite stories was of Jeb Stuart, who signed his letters to General Robert E. Lee, “Yours to count on.” Occasionally, I would close my letters to him “YTCO.” You could count on Maxey.

Maxey was cause oriented. He sublimated his ego and personal interests to whatever he as

trying to accomplish. Most people simply cannot do that. Whatever he undertook, he did it “with all his might,” from building the business to heading the committee for the revision of the King James Bible.

For instance, Maxey owned Tiffany Jewelry as a part of buying Bonwit Teller. When we’d go to restaurants in New York, people would look up and say, “There’s Maxey Jarman who owns Tiffany.” He enjoyed this connection with Tiffany, but then he sold it. I asked him why. “Because it doesn’t fit our apparel company.” Now, to sacrifice the ego satisfaction of being known as the man who owns Tiffany just to be more efficient for a larger responsibility requires dedication. Incidentally, the Tiffany illustration also shows how committed he was to Principle versus Money. A well-known promotional company would have paid more for Tiffany, but Maxey was afraid they would prostitute the name. He wanted to ensure the quality of Tiffany, so he sold it to Walter Hoving.

Maxey thought little about himself. His mind was occupied with opportunities and how he was going to get the job done. He thought of himself as little as anyone I’ve ever met. Most think of their private interests first, even when working for God. He didn’t.

Maxey went through some painful problems; but because he wasn’t self-centered, he didn’t worry too much about being humiliated. For most of us, the events he went through would have been unbearable. But as people have different thresholds of pain, Maxey had a different threshold of problem bearing. Most humiliation is a reverse for our egos. Since Maxey didn’t have the ego “high,” he didn’t experience the depths of the ego “low.” He repeatedly quoted to me, “Be grateful for all things.” I would say, “In all things.” And he would repeat, “For all things.” And on his prayer list of thanksgiving he had “when I’m being lied about.”

Maxey was future oriented. He seldom wanted to reminisce. He would have been the poorest person in the world to attend a class reunion. Maxey was always looking to the future. Even in our last visit, while under the oxygen support system, going in and out of a light coma, he didn’t reminisce; he wanted to talk about the black holes of space on

which he was writing a paper, and a list of current world problems.

He quickly lost interest in the past and concentrated on the future. When he lost his race for Republican nominee for governor, Mary Alice and I met Maxey and Sarah Mac at the Nashville airport. As we walked toward them, both of us started smiling. “That was this morning,” I said. “What about this afternoon?” He replied, “That’s exactly right!” Maxey felt you could learn from the past, but it should never be allowed to impede the future. Spinning yarns of the past violated his sense of the use of time.

One of my prayers is: “Lord, give me a fresh today. I’m tired of dragging this yesterday around.” Maxey, for some reason, was not cursed with this albatross.

Maxey believed in progress, not perfection. He criticized himself privately a great deal not because he failed to reach perfection, but because he wanted more progress. He realized that the difference between satisfactory progress and whimsical perfection simply costs too much. There’s a cover story in a recent issue of Psychology Today that shows the fallacies of perfectionism, and how often some people sacrifice broad progress for narrow perfection. Maxey understood that.

Maxey differentiated between gossip and grapevine. He knew it was important to be on the grapevine and know what was going on. He wanted to be close to his people where it related to business. But he wasn’t interested in gossip. I don’t think I ever heard him whisper in his life. He made no effort to keep his voice low because he didn’t maneuver you with confidences. If you said to Maxey, “I don’t want you to breathe this,” he would usually say, “Then don’t tell it to me. It loads up my memory to remember what I’m not supposed to say.”

Time was Maxey’s greatest “means.” Since time was his greatest limitation, it was to be invested judiciously. He invested it in the cause that brought the highest return according to his priority list of responsibilities. He needed to feel at the end of the day he had fulfilled his greatest responsibility. In the office he was never chatty. His associates respected his time, yet he didn’t rush about in a panic. His pace was fast and steady. He organized to save time, and was particularly short with telephone conversations-never rude, just businesslike. When he talked to you, he gave you his utmost attention, but you had the feeling that the subject should merit the time. I always wrote down what I wanted to talk to him about before I phoned. He never chided me into this; it was just that I felt in his attitude it was the only courteous thing to do. Possibly he gave others this same feeling, for he was able to live without an unlisted phone number during all of his career. He always kept to the subject.

Maxey looked first at opportunities. No opportunity, no responsibility. You hear people bemoan the fact they can’t meet a certain need. If you have no genuine opportunity, you have no responsibility. A man in jail can’t become a foreign missionary. As Spurgeon said, “If you can’t speak, God didn’t call you to preach.” Maxey had a great practical sense of what was possible.

Effort alone didn’t count. He had limited regard for effort because he felt many people substitute effort for accomplishment. Some individuals feel that as soon as they’re tired, they’ve done a good day’s work. He respected results with the least possible effort. I never tried to impress Maxey with activity. I never told him how tired I was or how much I traveled. I accepted the rule, “Result is the best excuse for activity.”

Someone called Maxey one day to criticize a sales manager: “Do you know John is out playing golf during business hours?” Maxey’s response was, “With the results he’s getting, I wish all my sales managers would do that.”

Maxey believed in people’s potential. He realized most could do more than they thought; therefore he was always exploring ways to develop them. He studied motivation and tried many formal and informal methods. He preferred for people to pull responsibility to them, provided they would accept accountability for it.

He didn’t see success for each person the same. In the mid-forties, one of our employees, Bill Fox, was killed in an automobile accident. I had just taken him off a machine and put him into the personnel department. As we drove back from the funeral, Maxey said, “I believe he was as successful a man as we have.” I was completely taken aback by that. “What do you mean, Maxey?” His response was, “He did as much with what he had as anybody I know.” He considered Bill Fox a successful man.

Maxey implemented responsibility with a strong, consistent discipline. As responsibility was the reason for his work, so discipline was the method. Once I told him I was a person of few habits, to which he replied, “Then you must waste a lot of time.” Habits were for saving time. He had habits for the routine things, and reviewed them periodically to see if they were still helping him be efficient. Those he didn’t need he replaced, no matter how hard. Smoking was the toughest habit he ever tackled, but he broke it. Those things that could not be routinized into habits he listed on a priority sheet. Then he would work to complete the first item before tackling the second, wherever practical. He didn’t jump around in his efforts. For example, he answered his mail as he read it-no shuffling through it two or three times. He went straight through his list for the day unless deterred by an emergency. He thought emergencies were the evidence of poor planning, therefore, he had very few.

His feeling of discipline was purely practical, not puritanical. He learned he could do more through strict discipline. He and Susannah Wesley would have been friends. Years ago, he shocked the Baptist brethren by admitting he worked on Sunday as a habit, not as an exception. He didn’t push any ox into the ditch to justify working. He felt he should work, not waste time sleeping or reading the comics in the newspaper.

He went to church twice on Sundays and to Wednesday night prayer meetings. He read four chapters every day and five on Sunday to get him through the Bible once a year (over sixty times). He more than tithed, and he prayed daily. He taught two Bible classes, held most of the lay positions in his church, and served many other Christian organizations including Christianity Today. As part of his discipline, he slept five and half hours a night.

Competition was part of his discipline. He believed in it. Maxey never felt we could get the best from the organization until we had them under competition. He enjoyed setting up competition between departments and individuals. I thought of Maxey when I asked a world-class weightlifter how much more he could lift in competition than he could in practice.

He said, “About two hundred pounds.” Maxey loved to argue, for it was verbal competition. We often explained to strangers that we were friends, but argued continually as a challenge.

Maxey was courteous, but still honest. Even in competitive business deals, he believed in helping anyone “save face” where there was no moral issue involved. He felt personal confrontations were unproductive. Maxey didn’t want gunslingers in the organization-shooting either for him or against him.

Even in the Christian community, Maxey was never one to make pious remarks such as “Bless you, brother,” or volunteer to pray for you as a way of terminating the conversation. If he said, “I’ll pray for you,” that meant you went on a list. He had a

daily, weekly, and monthly prayer list. He also kept a personal list of qualities for spiritual maturity he was praying about and developing in his own life.

Maxey was a catholic reader. He read constantly, quickly, and widely, usually five or six books at a time. Occasionally I would sit with him and another broadly-educated person, exhilarated by the amazing conversation. The Bible and French history were his favorite subjects, and they led into a very broad cross-section of literature. He would read as many viewpoints as possible to help him form his opinion. He kept a large library, with much coming in and about the same amount going out. He had a rather low acquisitive drive. He discarded letters, records, files, and even books as they were used. He never felt alone as long as he had a book. The first book he ever suggested I read was Plutarch’s Lives. He felt reading developed the mind as well as filled it.

Maxey made lists. The man who invented the pen deserves much of the credit for Maxey’s contribution to life. Everything he wanted to do he wrote down. Each year he made a list of the things he was working into his personal development. To live was to improve, and to improve was to make a list for specificity. Once I was telling him some plans that he felt were fuzzy. He asked that I write him a memo on it. When I told him I couldn’t write it but I could tell it to him, he smiled as he said, “The only

reason you can’t write it is because you don’t know it. Anything you know you can write.” That started me writing, and I believe he was right. As Bacon said, “Writing makes an exact man.”

Actually, the person who seriously deserves the credit for Maxey’s contribution is Sarah Mac. She was the warm home base, contributing to all he did and was. To her, Maxey came first, yet she had her own identity-a vital part of the civic, social, and church community. Maxey and Sarah Mac were like excellent dancers with separate and complementary choreography.

Maxey accepted his own weaknesses. For instance, his intuition about people wasn’t exceptional. He accepted this, and didn’t waste time trying to develop skills he didn’t have. He would say, “Don’t try to strengthen people in their weaknesses; it’s less productive than utilizing their strengths.” The role of the organization was to free and synergize their strengths, and in some other way cover their weaknesses. He was good at recognizing talent and giving opportunity for its use; utilizing without “using” others.

Maxey would not force the individual to succumb to the organization. As much as possible, he made the organization fit the people. In a sense, he felt the organization should be as loyal to the person as the person should be to the organization. We seldom hear loyalty used in this respect. He even accommodated himself to the star performers who were at times temperamental, even though it brought criticism from other executives. As long as they had high performance, he didn’t worry about their challenging his authority. His responsibility was to get results, not to prove he was the boss.

Maxey never became cynical. He knew that to manage a large organization he had to trust his subordinates. The few who failed him or conned him didn’t change this conviction.

If you were to ask what satisfied Maxey most in all his accomplishments, I think it was the people he had helped develop by providing them opportunity. Once he told me, “It’s not the plants we have built, but the people we have helped develop that makes me the proudest.” A large part of his drive to expand the business was to provide opportunity for others. Geraldine Stutz, the owner of fabled Henri Bendel, told me at Maxey’s funeral that when she bought the store, she immediately called Maxey and told him, “There is a Geraldine Stutz because there was a Maxey Jarman.”

He had the normal temper ascribed to “redheads,” but he controlled it well. When he did lose control, he was humiliated-not for social reasons, but because he lost his power to be effective. This was one of the few things that would upset him. Self-control was a matter of will, commanded by Scripture, and therefore his responsibility. In his Bible he defined temperance as “self-control.” I felt he usually came nearer “righteous indignation” than hotheadedness. When I recall the times he was hot, it generally involved someone’s irresponsibility or lying. He hated a lie. He couldn’t understand anyone deliberately being dishonest.

Maxey was decisive. This was one of his greatest leadership traits. He resented anyone “second guessing” his decision. He had a very open mind before making a decision, but a very closed mind once that decision was made. I found he would quickly review a decision when he thought it involved a moral mistake. Once he had the books opened just to give an employee a $2.85 refund because “The question isn’t how much trouble, but do we owe it?” Decisiveness, he felt, is one of the rarest traits in leadership. After he retired, he said, “Many people can make a good decision, but very few will.” He wasn’t a nervous leader; he had poise and tenacity.

Maxey was a much better demonstrator than a teacher. He rarely lectured; he showed you. He didn’t do it to snow you or prove how capable he was. He simply did it, and you had to observe him to learn the lesson. In fact, you had to work with him to fully appreciate him. He was not colorful; he was effective. In following him, we felt we could do anything required without losing self-respect. When we worked with Maxey, we could really “plant our feet” without looking over our shoulders expecting unethical maneuvers. He was loyal to his organization, and I never remember him making someone a scapegoat. When I failed, he told me, but I knew he wouldn’t sacrifice me to save his or anyone else’s face. You just don’t meet many people you can follow with that level of security.

Money to Maxey was a means, not an end. It’s hard to think of Maxey without thinking of money because he handled so much of it. He was “afraid” of accumulating personal wealth. He talked about money’s deception and the evils it brought to those obsessed by it. He proved his conviction by giving millions to Christian causes.

There were three facets to his giving that stand out to me: First, he gave currently. He didn’t save up or wait for occasions. Second, he gave a very large percentage of his income. Tithing was much too little for him to give. Therefore, his personal fortune was always much less than it could have been. He gave it away. Third, Maxey believed in giving anonymously. He didn’t want any earthly shrines named for him. In South America, Mary Alice and I were traveling with the Jarmans, visiting mission stations and churches. We repeatedly saw plaques denoting that the church had been given by Maxey Jarman. He never pointed out one of these, and I know he would have preferred the plaques not be there. Another time, I was visiting a preacher when his mail arrived with a check for $27,000 in answer to a request to Maxey.

As close as we were, he never told me of a single gift he ever made, even though I know he offered as much as a million dollars to start a Bible school. He combined the wealth of the rich and the spirit of the widow’s mite without trumpets blowing or the left hand telling the right what a great giver they belonged to.

Even when Maxey was at his lowest personal fortune, he gave a check for $13,000 to help Youth For Christ with a project we were undertaking. It was the last of his mother’s estate, which he had completely given away, just as he had given his inheritance from his father’s estate to start the Jarman Foundation for Christian causes. During the darkest days of his temporary financial crunch, which he didn’t try to hide or exploit, I asked him if he had ever thought of the millions he had given away. His answer was pure Jarmanese. “Of course I have, but remember, I didn’t lose a penny I gave away. I only lost what I kept.”

Maxey would never exploit his corporate position. He wasn’t picky, and he didn’t try to catch others he knew were taking some advantage, but he personally didn’t. He felt the higher you went in the organization, the more example you should be.

One time somebody made a crack about another executive: “He acts like he owns the place.” Maxey responded, “I’m glad he believes that, and I wish everybody here believed it and acted that way.” He wanted everybody to have a genuine sense of ownership because he knew the motivation that developed.

He oiled his effort with a deep joy and thanksgiving. Throughout his Bible, he repeatedly marked verses on joy and thanksgiving. In his personal prayer list he noted the things to be grateful for before he turned to problems and requests. Thanksgiving was a great part of his relation with God. He had the humility of gratitude.

If Maxey were alive, I would never show him this article. He would be embarrassed. I can almost see him push his lower lip over the upper and scowl. If I insisted, he would recognize my right to be wrong and would probably say, “OK, if you think it will help, go ahead, but put some of my weaknesses in to balance it. You have said too many good things.” To this I would have replied, “Forget that. I’m writing this to share with others the helps you have given me, and it doesn’t help to give them your weaknesses. This isn’t biography; it’s distillation.”

Maxey Jarman grave stoneIn the last memo we exchanged, he wrote about various persons and their search for meaning in life. Maxey’s final statement, I think, will give you the key to his life: “The ultimate, and I guess very few, if any, ever get to the full level of this position, is to know God-not necessarily to do something for God, but to know Clod. Reference might be to Philippians 3, verses 8 and 10. I really believe the ultimate purpose is to know God. I guess I’d have to confess I’ve had a good feeling in the very considerable number of people I’ve known in various ways-bank presidents, financial people, industrial corporation heads, governors, presidents of the United States, prominent people in the Christian world, and so forth. But that really is rubbish, to use Paul’s term, compared with the privilege of knowing God. I still have a long way to go to let the Holy Spirit teach me about Jesus Christ and the other things I need to know.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s