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George Romanta Kinney - A Man With A Vision

George Romanta Kinney, President and Treasurer G.R. Kinney & Co., Inc. 1917 (From the private collection of Frank Donner)

George Romanta Kinney founded the shoe company, G.R. Kinney & Co., Inc. in 1894 in Waverly, New York. His story is one of a man with a vision who faced difficult obstacles and triumphed. He persevered and invested his time and energy into a vision. That vision was realized when his company became the largest footwear chain in America and later, the Great American Shoe Store, Kinney Shoe Corporation.

Little has been published about George R. Kinney's early years prior to opening that first shoe store in Waverly. Records indicate that he was born in Candor, New York on June 5, 1866. His parents were Jeremiah S. Kinney and Louise Woodford. (1) Jeremiah Kinney ran a general store in Candor, a country town in Tioga County in upstate New York. He fell into debt due to providing merchandise on credit to local farmers and townspeople once too often. Upon his untimely death in 1876 at the age of fifty-two, his nine-year-old son, George, vowed that he would pay off his father's bankruptcy debts as soon as he finished school. (2)

At age 17, George Kinney left his mother and sister, Mary Louise "Minnie", behind in Candor and went to work in Binghamton, New York, for Stone, Goff and Company, a large manufacture and wholesaler of boots and shoes. Business was "dull," he wrote his family in 1885, and in that year he moved to the Lestershire Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Company, then the largest footwear manufacturer in upstate New York. During his ten years as a clerk at the "Lester Shoe Company," as it was commonly known, Kinney acquired a thorough knowledge of the shoe business, helped support his family back in Candor, and paid off his father's debts. (2)

Tragedy struck George's life once again in 1891 when his first wife, Phoebe Wadsworth, died. Records indicate that she is buried with their infant daughter. (3) George became a young widower faced with raising their son, alone.

In 1894, the door to a unique opportunity opened for George Kinney when Lester Shoe Company faced a financial crisis. George, then 28, invested the money he had saved and bought enough merchandise to take over the Lester retail outlet in Waverly, New York. Kinney modeled his Waverly store on the Lester retail example and bypassed both jobbers and independent wholesale distributors. He bought inexpensive goods in large quantities directly from factories and sold them to his customers at the lowest prices around. Recalling his father's unfortunate experience with credit, and determined to keep overhead costs down, Kinney used a "cash only" policy in Waverly. Its success proved enduring. For the rest of his life, Kinney lived by the credo, "Shoes on the Shelf or Money in the Till." (2)

Over the next four years, Kinney opened five more stores in Corning, New York; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Binghamton, New York; Ithaca, New York; and Reading, Pennsylvania. The names of these early stores which included "Economy Shoe Store" in Wilkes-Barre, the "Boston Shoe Store" in Reading, and the "People's Shoe Store" in Ithaca, indicate that he may have purchased locations from failed merchants, as he had done in Waverly. To finance the opening of early stores, Kinney took on men he knew and trusted as partners. He financed each store as a separate and distinct partnership. As new locations were announced, existing managers bought shares and became partners. In time, most every manager became a participant in the Kinney "combination". Generally, George Kinney had a 50 percent or majority interest in each store, and partners shared in profits in direct proportion to their investment. (2)

In 1895, Kinney moved to Wilkes-Barre and set up his "corporate headquarters" with two desks. One of his first hires was Ella Cook, a young woman fresh out of secretarial school. She worked beside George for the next five years, and in 1900, he proposed. In 1901, their son, LeRoy, was born. (2)

G.R. Kinney & Co., Inc. button hook - From the private collection of Frank Donner

The company continued to grow and prosper under Kinney's leadership. He made a strong point of relying not only on price but on quality. His "Creed of Better Values" emphasized maximum value for each dollar spent, and he sought "to handle the very best goods that could be sold at the prices asked." He worked tirelessly to improve the organization. In 1903, Kinney's vision had grown to 15 stores and he moved his headquarters to Manhattan. He had opened a store on Sixth Avenue the previous year as the only retailer in New York City selling shoes for less than a dollar. The real foundation of Kinney's success was his strategy to supply inexpensive goods to a brand new market. (2)

A family historical record states, "G. ROMANTA KINNEY was reportedly generous with his good fortune. He took several of his contemporaries in Candor, NY into the business with him and also was known to foot the bill for sending the graduating classes of Candor High School to Washington." (3) Employees appreciated Kinney's sincere interest in their welfare and his direct, "straight from the shoulder" manner. His secretary, Sophie Anderson (the aunt of later Kinney president Cameron Anderson), remembered him as the "plainest, quietest, easiest-to-see man in New York City." By this time, Kinney could reward his personnel handsomely. One enjoyed a monthly profit bonus that exceeded his salary. (2)

Kinney was devoted to his work and, despite his success; he never lost his simple, small-town ways. Although "No other Candor man ever made such a success in the business world as Mr. Kinney," his attorney later wrote, "the world has not made him feel too big for the little town he started from." (2)

In 1916, George Kinney's dream had become the largest footwear chain in America. His combination's outstanding performance had been a "revelation to the shoe industry," wrote the leading industry journal. In 1917, after 20 years of partnerships and with a total of 56 stores as far west as Illinois, the closely held company called G.R. Kinney & Co., Inc. was incorporated in New York. George Kinney owned the largest number of shares followed by his boyhood friend from Candor, New York and longtime associate, Ed Krom. (2)

Two years later, on June 17, 1919, George Romanta Kinney died of heart disease at the age of 53. He left an unforgettable legacy. He was a man with a vision who had forged through tragedy and prevailed. He persevered and realized his dream. G.R. Kinney & Co., Inc. became the largest footwear chain in America that evolved into the Great American Shoe Store, Kinney Shoe Corporation.


References

  1. Genealogical data: Index of Surnames Keeney Kinney
  2. Excerpts have been taken from the book, Retail Revolutionary: Kinney Shoe Corporation's First Century in Footwear by Kathleen McDermott. © 1994 Kinney Shoe Corporation (Out of print)
  3. Ancestry World Tree Project
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