In 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.
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.