Book Review: Celebration of Fools

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Celebration of Fools
by Bill Hare

AMACOM ©2004
294 pages

An Inside Look at the Rise And Fall of J.C. Penney

There was a time when J.C. Penney Co. represented the best of American business. Starting in 1902, founder James Cash Penney built his business from a single store in Kemmerer, Wyo., to a respected retail giant. Based on a formula that extolled the virtues of honor, confidence, service and cooperation, J.C. Penney Co. grew into an American institution through the hard work and long hours of Penney and his well-chosen, relentlessly trained managers and staff. Bill Hare, an executive speechwriter who has worked for two CEOs at J.C. Penney, describes the saga of a company that started with the thrift, vision and good citizenship of its founder at the turn of the 20th century and struggled for survival 100 years later because of the foolish actions and behaviors of its top executives.

Throughout Celebration of Fools, Hare traces the intriguing story of the company from its humble beginnings, through its rapid growth, to its disappointing, foundering days under the control of leaders Hare describes as arrogant and self-serving. Written as a nonfiction narrative, Hare weaves many colorful details about the company’s people and their experiences into an exciting, frustrating and cautionary tale where creative employees and executives are crushed by weak leaders and their over-abundant hubris. The results of his captivating storytelling are business tales whose lessons can be applied to any company coping with internal and external changes and difficulties.

A Complex Cast of Characters

While developing the characters of his saga from intensive research into the history of the company as well as his own personal insight while working for its corporate executives, Hare presents a complex cast of characters who represent many of the attributes and idiosyncrasies of players throughout the corporate world.

Hare begins his story by probing the mind and motivation of the company’s doting founder who wrangles with self doubt and copes with heartbreaking loss. Hare also describes the personality and strength of the founder’s hand-picked successor who battles intense opposition as he struggles to keep the company rooted in Penney’s vision and values. He also describes the deepest thoughts of the company’s highest-ranking woman as well as her frustrations with the powers beyond her control. While examining the upper ranks of the company over the years, he also introduces the frustrated young designer whose successes and genius are crushed by his new boss’s flagrant prejudices.

Indecision and Bad Decisions

While revealing the company’s mistakes and downfall, Hare presents the weak chief executive whose indecision and bad decisions, according to Hare, lost millions for the company’s stakeholders. Along the way, he introduces many other “Penney people” whose hard work made the company what it was and who paid the price when higher-ups drifted from Penney’s guiding principles.

This insider’s look at J.C. Penney’s steady rise and incredible fall offers readers a detailed study of leaders and the choices they make. By revealing the human side of powerful people and the effects their choices can have on an organization, Hare presents a case study of a company that changed from a unique retailer based on principles of trustworthiness, service and value that focused on serving customers and communities to one that focused on sales and profit. His examination of the people at the top of the company creates an important and relevant tale from which any company can learn. ~

Why We Like This Book
Full of emotion, deep soul searching, and pivotal moments when the company’s future hangs in the balance, Celebration of Fools shows what happens when a company founded on strong principles of good business loses its way and falls victim to the hubris of big bosses. Hare’s superb storytelling turns this business story into a smartly written tragedy from which anyone can learn how business should and should not be done.~

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