Leadership Tools

Posted on Tue, March 19, 2013

James B. Stewart was lucky to have a steady job. Born on a hardscrabble farm in western Arkansas, orphaned at 12, he knew what it meant to be hungry, and relied on the work ethic and experience that came from a living earned tilling the land to make sure he didn't miss many meals.

Transplanted to the city, he found employment as a seed vendor, a florist, and finally the floor manager for a wholesale grocery warehouse. Stewart and his crew of laborers spent the day unloading produce from railroad cars and farm wagons, and reloading them into delivery trucks bound for grocery stores across the state. It was hard work, but it paid enough to feed a man and his family. Barely.

During the noontime break, J.B. noticed that while some of his men sat down and ate from lunch pails and lard tins, others busied themselves with small diversions, or stood by the water cooler until the bell rang calling them back to work. Stewart knew his men were all hard workers – no one in those days could afford to sacrifice a paying job to sloth – and he knew that every one of them had to be hungry by lunchtime. He also knew that some among his crew needed every dime they earned to feed their families, and chose to forego their noonday meal, if it meant their children had more to eat at home.

Another thing Stewart knew: every day his company disposed of hundreds of pounds of bruised, broken, spoiled and spoiling vegetables - produce that could not be sent on to retail grocers.

One morning he ordered a few of his men to retrieve a large steel drum from a nearby scrap pile. He directed them to scrub the drum thoroughly, set it up on a solid brick footing out in the rail yard, and build a fire of lumber scraps beneath. Into the drum went salvaged pieces of onion and squash, wilted celery, broken bits of turnip, carrot, cabbage, and whatever else could be safely diverted from the trash heap.

By noon the warehouse crew had fifty gallons of bubbling vegetable stew to satisfy their appetites, a change that brought tears to the men’s eyes, especially when they turned to thank their boss for such an unexpected windfall.

“My men ate pretty well, I reckon,” Stewart said, decades later. “Too much food going to waste there already, to allow good, hard-working men to go hungry. Every now and then we might get a great big bone from the butcher shop, and pitch that into the soup, too.”

Stewart kept up the practice for as long as he was in charge of the warehouse, with the result that his crew grew stronger, worked harder, and remained fiercely loyal to their boss, and their company. Several of those men followed him throughout their working lives, moving with him as his fortunes improved, and his career advanced from the private sector into a senior administrative role in municipal goverment.

J.B. Stewart never pretended to be anything more than a simple man of the earth, nor did he profess to practice anything more than common sense, and a relentless application of the Golden Rule:

“Treat a man well and give him the tools he needs to work, and that’s just what he’s liable to do.”

Nearly sixty years later, families of men who used to work on Stewart’s grocery crew crowded the room at his funeral service. “Do you know what his kindness meant to my daddy?” they would ask. “What his generosity meant to our entire family?”