Robert Elkington Wood

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Robert Elkington Wood

Robert Elkington Wood (1879-1969), American Army officer and business executive, pioneered in modern retailing and was responsible for building Sears, Roebuck and Company into the world's largest merchandising operation.

Robert E. Wood was born on June 13, 1879, in Kansas City, Mo. He won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy and graduated in 1900. After tours of duty in the Philippines and Montana and teaching at the academy, he wrangled a transfer to Panama, where canal construction was beginning in 1905. He became a captain in 1907 and later was made chief quartermaster. When the canal was completed in 1915, he retired as a major under a special congressional act. He joined E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company but left for General Asphalt Company when he saw no room for advancement.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Wood returned to the Army as a colonel and was placed in charge of ports in France. In 1918 he was promoted to brigadier general and made acting quartermaster general in Washington. His rapid reorganization of chaotic Army procurement greatly impressed his civilian assistant Julius Thorne, the president of Montgomery Ward, who made Wood a vice president of his mail-order firm in 1919. He clashed with the older executives and left in 1924. He was quickly hired by Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roe-buck and Company. Wood's plan to expand into retail stores that were outside urban business districts and easily accessible to the automobile was a great success, and he was made president in 1928.

Wood encouraged, advised, lent money to, and sometimes bought control of hundreds of small manufacturers around the country in order to obtain merchandise for his retail stores at competitive prices. This policy was in line with his hope of strengthening the American economic system through industrial democracy, which also inspired the Sears profit-sharing plan, which Wood called his proudest achievement.

Although a conservative Republican, Wood supported the New Deal until 1940, when his isolationist views prompted him to form the American First Committee to oppose American entry into World War II. However, he gave full support to Franklin Roosevelt's administration after Pearl Harbor and served as a civilian adviser to the Army. After the war he was a strong supporter of anti-internationalists, especially Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.

Wood became chairman of the board at Sears in 1939. He launched the largest expansion in merchandising history in 1946, just when most businessmen were predicting a postwar recession. This successful gamble made Sears the undisputed leader in retailing before Wood retired in 1954. He died on Nov. 6, 1969.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Wood, but Herman Kogan, The Great E. B.: The Story of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1958), contains a full discussion of Wood's publishing career. Wood figures prominently in Boris Emmet and John E. Jeuck, Catalogues and Counters: A History of Sears Roebuck and Company (1950).

Additional Sources

Worthy, James C., Shaping an American institution: Robert E. Wood and Sears, Roebuck, New York: New American Library, 1986. □