Auerbach, Beatrice Fox (1887–1968)
Auerbach, Beatrice Fox (1887–1968)
American business executive who for many years was the only female department-store president in the country. Name variations: Beatrice Fox. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on July 7, 1887; died on November 29, 1968; eldest daughter of Moses and Theresa Stern Fox; married George Auerbach.
Came into the family business, G. Fox & Co., when her husband died (1927); became company president (1938); introduced the five-day work week, excellent retirement and medical plans, and a subsidized lunchroom; was one of the first to hire African-Americans in jobs that were not dead-end positions; initiated a statewide toll-free telephone service, a free delivery service, and fully automated billing; by 1959, G. Fox & Co. was the largest privately owned department store in the United States.
On July 7, 1887, Beatrice Fox, eldest daughter of Moses and Theresa Stern Fox, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, into an affluent Jewish family. Beatrice's paternal grandfather had emigrated from Germany in the 1840s, opening up a one-room fancy goods shop that was transformed by his son Moses into G. Fox & Co., a profitable retail enterprise. Beatrice attended public and private schools in Hartford, as well as a finishing school in New York City. During these years, she often traveled to Europe with her parents, and it was on one of these trips that she met her future husband, George Auerbach.
After the marriage, the Auerbachs moved to Salt Lake City, but they returned to Hartford in 1917 when the family store burned to the ground. Determined to rebuild the business, Moses Fox hired his son-in-law to assist him in the task. The new and remodeled store was a great success, and George served as its secretary-treasurer while Beatrice concentrated on being a wife and mother. Upon her husband's death in 1927, Beatrice took on what she saw as a temporary job to assist her father. Years later, she recalled that she "just came down" to the store, believing she would return to domesticity within a few months. As it turned out, she said, "I found myself fascinated and I stayed."
Increasingly, Auerbach took on her father's managerial responsibilities as he grew older and his health began to fail. She learned an immense amount about business from 1927 to 1938. After her father's death in 1938, she inherited the major share of stock in the firm and was named its president. Not only did she keep the family business intact during the worst years of economic depression in the early 1930s, but she was also responsible for a number of important innovations. Concerned about her employees' morale, she introduced a five-day work week, keeping the store closed on Sundays and Mondays, except during the Christmas shopping season. Auerbach offered her employees excellent retirement and medical plans as well as a subsidized lunchroom. The Theresa Stern Fox Fund was put in place to provide employees with interest-free loans for family emergencies. Decades ahead of her time, Auerbach made it company policy to hire African-Americans for jobs that provided opportunities for advancement and were not just menial or dead-end. Genuinely concerned about her 3,500 employees, she often commented, "Our entire approach has been a community one."
Always an innovative manager and marketer, Auerbach increased the sales volume of G. Fox & Co. tenfold during her 27 years as head, to $60 million in 1965, the year of her retirement. To accomplish such impressive growth, she initiated a statewide toll-free telephone service, a free-delivery service, and fully automated billing. Customer satisfaction was paramount in store design, and certain appliances were only sold at sales counters where repairers were on hand to provide service. These and other innovations kept customers satisfied and loyal, so that by 1959 an $8 million addition was built to increase floor space. By this year, G. Fox & Co. was the largest privately owned department store in the United States and could boast of the largest business volume of any enterprise between New York and Boston. In 1965, Beatrice Fox Auerbach retired as the firm's president, at the same time overseeing a deal that exchanged her family's privately held G. Fox & Co. stock for $40 million worth of publicly held stock in the May Company chain of department stores. She had been for many years the only female president of a major department store in the United States.
An active community leader throughout her business career, Auerbach expanded this role in her active retirement years, remarking: "One thing you can be certain of is that I won't be spending it on yachts and horses, but for the benefit of people." As early as 1941, she had established the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation to fund various educational and civic projects. She also provided funds for a program in retailing and related subjects at the Connecticut College for Women in order to provide professional education for women. An important beneficiary of her foundation work was the Service Bureau for Women's Organizations, founded in 1945 to train women's groups in community-organization strategies.
Auerbach served as a director of the May Company until her death. Her two sons-in-law served as president and board chair of the main Hartford store, still called G. Fox & Co. though it was now a subsidiary of the May Company. With superb business acumen, Auerbach upgraded the appeal of G. Fox & Co. from a middle-class to an upper-middle-class consumer, a feat few retail executives of the period accomplished. She died on November 29, 1968, mourned by her family, generations of employees and customers, and the citizenry of Hartford, Connecticut.
Ingham, John N., and Lynne B. Feldman. Contemporary American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Neu, Irene D. "The Jewish Businesswoman in America," American Jewish Historical Quarterly. Vol. 66, no. 1, September 1976, pp. 137–154.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia