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William Filene was born into a poor family in Poland in 1830. He started out in America with a store the size of a small bedroom. But he kept building until he had one of the most successful retail chains in American history.

From the outside, it might appear that his success was due to his big plans. In 1912, for example, he built a store in Boston that was so large and well-designed that it was still in use more than 50 years later.

But in reality, his success came from keen behind-the-scenes leadership:
  • He granted opportunities to workers. Filene’s was among the first American businesses to reject nepotism and promote from within.

  • He was a pioneer in market research. He instituted consumer panels, including a “college board” of students that offered advice on what kind of clothing he should sell to young customers.

  • He recognized the value of employee training. Even the wait people in his store restaurants learned exactly how to place silverware on tables.

  • He established a minimum living wage and paid it to female employees.

  • He created a board of arbitration that allowed employees to resolve disputes with other employees without management involvement, thereby creating an atmosphere of fairness through the ranks.

  • He established one of the first U.S. credit unions and made low-interest loans to employees so they could buy houses and pay medical expenses without falling victim to loan sharks.
Sounds like a visionary leader.

—Adapted from The Great Merchants: America’s Foremost Retail Institutions and the People Who Made Them Great, Tom Mahoney and Leonard Sloane, Harper & Row.

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