Charles P. McCormick, populist employer

Spice merchant: Golden Rule was the basis for his successful technique for managing people

Marylanders Of The Century

August 27, 1999

CHARLES P. McCormick was a revolutionary in a business suit.

When he took over the family's Baltimore spice and extract business in 1932, he decided to treat employees as if they were partners. Colleagues thought he was out of his mind. Standard management practice of the day was to view workers as machines -- to be run until they broke down.

At the height of the Depression, C. P. McCormick startled the local business community. While others were cutting pay and laying off employees, he handed workers a 10 percent raise and shortened the work week from 56 to 46 hours. He also promised to end the three annual seasonal layoffs his late uncle, Willoughby McCormick, favored as a cost-cutting measure.

The conventional wisdom was that C. P., as his employees called him, would run the money-losing business into the ground. But instead of reporting another year of red ink, the company moved into the black -- during the Depression. For the three decades C. P. ran the firm, McCormick & Co. prospered.

Charles Perry McCormick was born in 1896, the son of Baptist missionaries in Mexico. He spent much time in countries that were suspicious of or hostile to democracy and capitalism. When he came to the United States for schooling as a teen, he developed a profound appreciation for freedom and free enterprise -- and the Golden Rule.

His first McCormick job was sweeping floors on school vacations. After attending Johns Hopkins University and serving in the Navy, C. P. joined the company in 1919 as a salesman and then a sales supervisor for McCormick's patent medicines in the South. By 1926, he had joined the board.

From these posts, he studied the business acumen of his uncle, Willoughby, who over 30 years built a small distributor of spices and extracts into an international enterprise by stressing quality. (Willoughby created the slogan "Make the best -- someone will buy it.")

C. P., however, was convinced his uncle's management style hurt performance. "My uncle ruled with as firm a hand as he had in the one-room factory," C. P. wrote.

He was convinced the company's continuing losses stemmed from poor employee morale and low productivity. He believed McCormick workers had more to contribute than their sweat. This belief formed the foundation for his "multiple management" method.

Shortly after cutting hours and raising pay, C. P. asked 17 young executives to form a junior board of directors to provide new ideas.

This experiment proved so successful that within a year C. P. formed a board of factory workers. It made recommendations to im- prove manufacturing processes, cut costs and increase profits.

C. P. noted a changed attitude. "They began to show that poise and thoughtfulness which distinguishes all men when they realize their responsibility to their fellows and share the obligations of the success of a business," he wrote. C. P. also created a sales board. He brought women and blacks into management long before the advent of affirmative action.

In the 1940s, other national companies embraced C. P.'s multiple-management style. But many executives did not subscribe to his methods. C. P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., his son, recalls his father joined the board of the National Association of Manufacturers but soon was asked to leave. "Some of them considered my father to be a Communist," his son says with a chuckle.

Long before the term was coined, C. P. believed in "community service." One day each year, McCormick employees worked on an off-day and donated their earnings to the Baltimore Community Chest. This practice, called C-Day, began in 1941 and continues today in all of McCormick's divisions.

C. P., who played football at school but was never a star, also established a prestigious annual award for the "unsung heroes" of Maryland high school football.

In an editorial written after his death in July 1970, The Sun pointed out that C. P. McCormick was a man who "bartered in teas, spices and humanity, who lived his ideals to the full by his word and, even more abundantly, by his example."

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