I entered the reception room at the Joseph Wharton Awards Dinner, and asked an elegant woman standing close to Jay Baker, if she worked at Kohl’s. She replied, “Oh, I’m just a friend. We’re all here to celebrate Jay.” Indeed, friends came from Florida, and Professor Fader and others came from Philadelphia. The President of the Fashion Institute of Technology and the President of Hunter College in New York each had a table. Jay Baker is a rock star.
Our Club honored Jay Baker with the Joseph Wharton Award for Lifetime Achievement, because Jay shows what a “life well-lived” looks like. His smile makes others smile. In fact, just thinking of him smiling makes others smile! When I met him, reminding him of our interview two years ago, he wanted to know what I was working on now.
Howard Marks, W’67, Chairman of Oaktree Capital, and last year’s recipient of the Joseph Wharton Award for Lifetime Achievement, introduced him during the dinner: “Jay began his retail career at the age of 7, greeting customers to his mother’s millinery shop in Flushing, New York. That’s a soft spot for me because I grew up in the next town over, and maybe my mother patronized his mother’s shop. After Jay graduated from Wharton in 1956, he entered the U.S. Army, where he became a sharpshooter. I wonder if that’s how he hit his targets so precisely throughout his career. After leaving the Army, he entered the Macy’s training program. Then he moved on to Ohrbach’s, the May Corporation and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“He is hailed by his colleagues as the ‘merchant’s merchant.’ His stellar industry reputation peaked with his triumphant 14-year career at Kohl’s, which began in 1986, with 40 stores and $288 million in sales, and ended in 2000, when he retired as President with 500 stores, 54,000 employees and $5 billion in sales. And for those of you who didn’t go to Wharton, that’s a 22% annual growth rate in sales. In 2014, the Wharton School presented Jay with its highest honor, the Dean’s Medal.
“Jay currently chairs the Baker Retailing Center, a global retail institute he began at Wharton. At present, he is Chairman of the Baker Museum of Art in Naples, Florida, where he is also a trustee of Artis—Naples, and is a Trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. While he was Chairman of the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation, donations increased from $2 million a year to $30 million a year. He believes that one should give while one has a say in how the money is spent, and he has done so.”
You can read our full-length interview in this magazine’s Spring 2016 Retail Issue, on how Jay created Kohl’s and his path from Wharton. Here, we will focus on his acceptance speech.
Congratulating his fellow honorees, Jay said, “It’s the first time I met them. They are amazing people.” Jay thanked the Club, his wife Patty Baker, children and friends in attendance. He then told his story. “I grew up in Flushing, Queens. We had wonderful parents. None of them went to college. Their whole thing was to give us a chance. They both worked. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of love.
“I look at the kids we interview today for scholarships. They have a 4.6 GPA out of 4 GPA. They are the president of every club. They were football stars. And I am asking myself, ‘How did I ever get into Wharton?’ Luckily, there weren’t as many geniuses in those days. But I had four wonderful years there, in 1952. I had the chance to get an education from the best professors in the country. To think — to go to the Wharton School — it was phenomenal! As I look back over the years, one of the things that stayed with me … it was like an inner confidence. I was always so proud.
“Years later, I had the opportunity to get more involved in Wharton.
One day, when I was still at Kohl’s, I got a call from the Dean: The School was building Huntsman Hall, and could they come out and see me? I should have known. I should have said, “No, I’m very busy!” But I didn’t. Today, there is a photo of Patty and I and our dog Kizzy. So Kizzy is very famous in Philadelphia.
“I worked very hard my whole life. But I was very fortunate. Especially the 14 years that we spent at Kohl’s. It was an amazing thing — it was 40 stores, $288 million, which is very small for our industry, and more important, it would have been out of business in a year. Bill Kellogg, John Herma, myself and some wonderful financial partners, which always helps, we were able to grow it.
“Patty and I, luckily, have the same values from our parents. We want to give back now. We have been very blessed. There are a lot of incredibly successful people here. To give back is an incredibly wonderful thing. The only thing we ask of the students whom we give scholarships to, is that if you make it one day, think about another student and give to them.”