For 128 years, Montgomery Ward was one of the great names in American retailing. But after decades of financial struggle, it closed its doors in March, abandoning the "sales associates" it often called its "family" to their individual fates.
By YILU ZHAO
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001
Kay Kitchens' husband was only 40, a robust man who seemed in good health, when his fatal heart attack struck last March.
Stunned, grieving and lonely, Kitchens took comfort in the words and hugs of her co-workers.
"They were like my family," said Kitchens, 46, who sold draperies at the Montgomery Ward department store in Tampa's University Mall. "I would not have survived had it not been for the people at Wards."
So it seemed almost a second unexpected death in the family when Wards announced in December, barely nine months later, that it was closing all 250 of its stores and going out of business.
Depressed and pessimistic, Kitchens has been without a job since mid-March, when the company closed the store where she worked for almost five years.
Across Tampa Bay at Clearwater Mall, Paula Courterier also sold draperies at Wards for the past year.
At first glance, the two women are strikingly alike.
Both are in their 40s, with strawberry-blond hair and slight figures. Neither has children.
And like Kitchens, Courterier, 49, was stressed and wary about the challenge of finding new work. But she succeeded, thanks to the persistent encouragement of her husband.
"My new job has worked out better than anything I had expected," an elated Courterier said one week after starting a new job in the office of a CAT scan operator.
Montgomery Ward, for 128 years one of the great names in American retailing, abandoned the "sales associates" it often called its "family" to their individual fates. And it did so in the middle of an economic slowdown.
In their different circumstances, Kitchens and Courterier reflect the mix of frustration and success experienced by 28,000 Wards employees nationwide, including 700 in the bay area, since their employer told the world Dec. 28 that it was preparing for that unglamorous ritual of retail failure: the going-out-of-business sale.
Goodbye to Wards
A store security guard caught the news on CNN. That's how Courterier and her colleagues at Clearwater Mall learned they were losing their store -- and their jobs.
Courterier grew up with Wards. When she was a student at Largo High School, her mother chose school clothes for her from the Wards catalog. When word of the closing first hit, some of her customers were equally nostalgic.
"There was this old man who was in his 70s," Courterier said. "He came to me and said everything his mom bought was from the Wards catalog."
Wards employees were proud of the service they provided customers.
Last year, Courterier recalls, a sales associate from Tampa drove all the way to the Clearwater store to find just the right curtains sought by an elderly customer.
That saleswoman was Kitchens. "This is how kind she is," Courterier said. "She didn't make any money off it."
But the good feelings between Wards employees and customers became strained after the chain's bankruptcy plans became public.
"A lot of the customers were angry. I think they felt betrayed and they took it out on us," Courterier said. "I think it frightens them to know that something so American, so established could go under."
Wards' demise was no surprise to retail analysts. For two decades they had watched the chain struggle to find enough profitable niches to fill its large stores. Wards turned to moderate- and lower-moderate-income families as a customer base, a decision that put it in direct competition with discount stores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart that are designed to thrive on low prices and thin margins.
After languishing as a unit of Mobil Oil Corp. through the 1980s, Wards went private. But it was too late. The shrinking chain wrestled a heavy debt load through the 1990s and eventually came under the control of GE Capital, the financial services giant that held most of its junk bonds and owned its credit card operation.
Many employees scoffed at those explanations. Courterier and Kitchen put the blame squarely on what they saw as the corporate avarice of General Electric Co., Wards' parent.
"They pulled the plug on Wards to buy Honeywell," said Courterier, referring to GE's deal to purchase the technology company.
With their salaries plus severance pay for veteran employees at stake, most of the sales staff stayed for the liquidation sale that dragged on for almost three months.
It wasn't pretty. Markdown tags were slapped on a diminishing stock of merchandise and entire departments of the stores sat cordoned off and vacant. To Courterier, some of the bargain-hunters seemed like vultures hovering over a carcass.
"They were there looking for the big deal," she said. One customer approached her with a $100 blender that was marked down 50 percent and offered to pay $15. Courterier was outraged. Even at the end, she thought, Wards was no flea market.
The long goodbye was doubly painful for Kitchens, still mourning her husband's death.
"It was like going through another loss," she said. "Everything got smaller and smaller. And you lose family because they started to let people go."
After her shift each day, she went home to cry. She skipped work the last week before her store closed. She couldn't face it.
The phone keeps ringing in the North Tampa home Kitchens shares with her 78-year-old father. But they seldom pick it up. Most likely, it's just another bill collector.
"They call every day," Kitchens said. "Every day of my life. It's maddening. It's all day long. Even on Sundays. You cannot even have a peaceful Sunday. All the way past 10 o'clock at night."
The walls began closing in financially when Kitchens' husband, Pete Case, died last spring. With almost half of the family income gone, Kitchens and her father were forced to take out a $25,000 mortgage against their house.
At first they still had Kitchens' salary from Wards, about $300 a week plus $75 to $250 in commissions. Now, they are down to Kitchens' unemployment check and her father's Social Security stipend.
"We keep the lights off. We keep the hot water off," Kitchens said. For dinner, she and her father often split 90 cents' worth of fried rice and $3 of mixed vegetables from a Chinese take-out. She hasn't filled a prescription, and sometimes she cannot afford to fill her car with gas.
Kitchens didn't put in her first job application until the beginning of March, only two weeks before her Wards store closed. She applied only to big retailers because customer service is her specialty. Even then, she refused to send resumes through the mail. She wanted to apply in person.
Kitchens, who carries herself with poise and grace, doubtless leaves a good impression during such face-to-face interviews. But her in-person approach limits the number of businesses she can reach. So far, she has only applied to eight.
Her downbeat mood clearly has clouded her job hunt.
"The timing couldn't be more terrible," she said. "I was still dealing with the death of my husband. And now I have to start from scratch." Some days, she said, "I am so afraid, honestly, to get up. I am afraid something bad might happen."
As she waits to hear from a few more potential employers, Kitchens' father has urged her not to give in to her gloom. "Kay," he says, "you cannot let this destroy you."
For Courterier, the job hunt was different from the start.
She was nervous, to say the least, when she started searching in January, soon after the Wards bankruptcy announcement.
But her husband kept reminding Paula, who calls herself a born-again Christian, that "God has a plan for you, and there's something out there."
Courterier proceeded methodically and tirelessly.
Every Sunday, she scanned the "help wanted" ads in the classifieds section of the St. Petersburg Times.
"I have a little ritual," Courterier explained while she was still searching. "Every Sunday, I get the paper; I yellow-mark the ones I would be interested in. I go back, cut them out and paste them on a piece of paper. If I need to fax, I put next to it "fax.' If I need to call, I write "call.' If I need to come in, I write "go in.' Then I go down the line, boom, boom, boom."
For weeks, she heard from no one. People who promised to call her back didn't. About the time she sent out her 50th resume, she started to lose heart.
"I kept bringing up the bad points," she said, that she was neither young nor college-educated. "But my husband kept saying, "Paula, you've got experience. You are a professional woman, and you are intelligent. And God has a perfect job for you. God doesn't close one door when he's not opening another.' So after hearing him saying it so many times, I started agreeing with him."
The job offer came one early March day around noon, when she was getting ready for an afternoon shift at Wards' liquidation sale. A supervisor called from CAT Scan 2000, an operator of mobile medical equipment. "Welcome aboard," she said.
Courterier laughed with joy. "It feels so good to know that you can depend on God," she said.
The job has turned out better than she had hoped. It pays more than her Wards job. Her new office is so close to her Clearwater apartment that she can walk to work. And the new job has a 9-to-5 schedule she never enjoyed at Wards.
"It feels like I have been liberated," Courterier said. "My life is not as hectic. Before, I did my grocery shopping at 9 o'clock at night. That was crazy. That was no way to live.
"Now I have a job, and I have a life."
In recent months, the St. Petersburg Times has interviewed more than 20 former Wards employees about the store's demise and their search for new jobs. A sampling:
Terry Witherspoon, 51, Clearwater
At Wards: Was manager of jewelry department at Clearwater Mall
Now: Works as a manager at Burlington Coat Factory in St. Petersburg.
"It was a big part of my life. We were like a big family. I thought I would retire with Wards. It just wasn't meant to be. ... I was disappointed by the severance package."
Leroy Stewart, 25, St. Petersburg
At Wards: Worked as associate in shipping and receiving department in Tyrone Mall while he was a part-time student at University of South Florida
Now: Works as a recreation aid in St. Petersburg, caring for children after school.
"It didn't matter to me. I wasn't in there for a career. I have set my sights higher. But I felt bad for the people who were in there for 16, 20 years."
Kay Forrest, 42,Clearwater
At Wards: Worked as associate in linen and housewares deparment in Clearwater Mall
Now: Waiting to start cashier's job at an Albertson's supermarket.
"I was relieved when the store closed. When we were first told that Wards was going to close, it was hard going to work, knowing you wouldn't have a job in a few weeks. One customer even called to make a threat. If we didn't let him get his refund, or something like that, he was going to come and shoot the employees. It was scary."
Carl Sanford, 65, Pinellas Park
At Wards: Worked as associate in major appliances department in Tyrone Mall.
Now: Works as associate in appliances department at Lowe's home improvement store on 22nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg.
"The way they used us in the end was disgraceful. They promised us the world and practically gave us nothing. What they gave us in the end was so little; it was unreal. If I had known that, I wouldn't have stayed. I would have quit in December."
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