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Harry Selfridge (left) with Leslie Mitchell, circa 1930s.
Harry Selfridge (left) with Leslie Mitchell, circa 1930s.

The Management Philosophy of Harry Selfridge

Harry Selfridge was not only ahead of his time in the world of marketing, he also was decades ahead in his management philosophy.

PBS started running a period series called "Mr. Selfridge". It is based on the life and times of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American entrepreneur who started the famous Oxford Street department store in London in 1909. The last time my wife and I were in London almost 30 years ago -- we actually met in London while in college -- we made a point of buying a pastoral ceramic piece from Selfridges, as well as a couple toys from Harrods. That piece is below.

But until last night, I knew little of the man behind the store. As the series ran its first episode, I powered up my iPad and looked up the actual history behind the story.

One of entries on Wikipedia intrigued me. At some point prior to 1918, when it was published, Selfridge wrote a book entitled 'The Romance of Commerce.' Wikipedia describes it this way:

In it, he has chapters on ancient commerce, China, Greece, Venice, Lorenzo de' Medici, the Fuggers, the Hanseatic League, fairs, guilds, early British commerce, trade and the Tudors, the East India Company, north England’s merchants, the growth of trade, trade and the aristocracy, Hudson’s Bay Company, Japan, and representative businesses of the 20th century.

Among the many popular quotations attributed to the man, the most famous is 'the customer is always right,' a sentiment that is generally true, but not always, in my view. I worked the gate and ticket counter for Continental Airlines for nearly a decade and came across a few customers who wanted to milk the system for all it was worth, but generally, most everyone were great to work with and understanding.

But from the perspective of running a business with more than you as the employee, I found Selfridge's management ideas very much ahead of their time, as was his approach to marketing. His department store, for example, was the first to light its show windows at night. Here are some of his views on management:

• The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.
• The boss depends upon authority, the leader on goodwill.
• The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.
• The boss says "I"; the leader, "we."
• The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.
• The boss knows how it is done; the leader shows how.
• The boss says "Go"; the leader says "Let's go!"

Of course, Harry was also a bit of a cad who embarked on numerous affairs, even while his wife was alive (she died of the Spanish flu in 1918, the year his book was published), eventually, at age 69, running after one of the Dolly Sisters, a Hungarian beauty, aged 33. Eventually, his extravagance and the Great Depression would pretty much ruin him, but he left behind a remarkable legacy, a small piece of which sits in our living room, a reminder of a wonderful trip to the country and the city that brought the two of us together.

Thanks, Harry.

Posted By: Bill Moore [01-Apr-2013]