Thursday, November 27, 2008

Robert E. Wood


After a successful military career, including stints in the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, and service in World War I, General Robert E. Wood entered the business world. Wood began working at Montgomery Ward, rising to vice president before leaving the company over a dispute about company strategy. After leaving Ward's in 1924, he joined their main competitor, Sears, Roebuck, where he contributed to their wild successes and their eventual dominance over Ward's.

During his time at Sears, Wood served as a vice president and eventually rose to be the chairman from 1939 to 1954. Wood brought to Sears two key attributes that made him a business success and that helped make American capitalism flourish. The first was a deep knowledge of operations management. During his time in the Panama Canal Zone when the canal was still under construction, he rose to the post of Chief Quartermaster when he quickly mastered the management of a massive workforce as well as a intricate supply network. Contemporary reports indicate that Wood was able to keep enough fresh Portland Cement coming to the canal zone so that workers could be constantly and efficiently employed, but not so much that the humid conditions would spoil any excess supply. This organizational genius would later serve him well in running an ever-expanding Sears. The second trait that Wood brought to the business world was his deep interest and understanding of demographics. Again, during his time in the canal zone, Wood would spend his free time studying the Statistical Abstract of the United States and various Census reports. From this arid study of the trends of the American population, Wood gained a deeply-focused sense of how to stay ahead of changes in settlement patterns and shopping habits.

At Sears, Wood first oversaw the expansion of the company from a strictly mail-order business to one that operated retail locations. He pushed this strategy further when he led the company to open retail locations both in the growing urban centers as well as in the more rural areas, when improved transportation allowed such customers to enjoy shopping at a centralized location.

During the years of World War II, Wood also planned and executed a brilliant corporate expansion strategy that put Sears ahead of its competitors when the post-war economic explosion took place. Unlike his peers, who feared that the end of WWII might bring a return to a recession or even depression conditions, Wood knew from his study of demographics that Americans had been becoming more urbanized and that war-time rationing and Depression Era conditions had created a great pent-up demand for consumer goods. In the decade after WWII ended, thanks to his vision and willingness to make capital investments, Wood oversaw a near tripling of Sears, Roebuck's sales. By the 1967 Christmas season, Sears became the first retailer to reach $1,000,000,000 in sales in one month.

Wood's place as a hero of capitalism comes from his principal achievement, the use of knowledge of demographic trends to dramatically expand his business, thereby resulting in cheaper and more easily-available goods for everyone. Though the Sears company have since faltered, Wood's vision blazed the trail for later retail geniuses such as Sam Walton to continue expanding that sector of the economy and bringing more prosperity to the American people.

Sources:
Biography at Sears Archives
Wikipedia entry
Information at Biography.com

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