The founder of Tesco stores, Sir Jack Cohen (1898 – 1979), was commemorated today (Thursday 16 April), with an English Heritage blue plaque at 91 Ashfield Street, Whitechapel, E1, where he lived as a child. The scale of Sir Jack's contribution to British retail culture is indisputable. His opportunistic and inventive approach to business won him phenomenal success, and the profile that the Tesco brand continues to enjoy today is testament to his acumen, energy and insight. The blue plaque was unveiled by current Tesco Chief Executive, Sir Terry Leahy, and Sir Jack's daughter, Dame Shirley Porter, will also attend the unveiling.
Jacob Edward Kohen (who later changed his name by deed poll, and was generally known as "Jack") was born in Whitechapel, London, in 1898. He was the second son and last of five surviving children of Avroam Kohen, a tailor and immigrant Russian Jew. Leaving school at 14, he joined his father in business; the outbreak of the First World War led to a demand for uniforms and ensured an income for the family.
In 1917 Jack joined the Royal Flying Corps but was demobilised two years later. In order to avoid returning to his father's workshop, he spent his £30 demobilisation gratuity on surplus NAAFI foodstuffs, which he sold in a Hackney street market, quickly developing the selling strategy - low prices and fast turnover – which earned him the nickname "Jack the Slasher". Anxieties about the respectability of market trading were swept away as he found he had the enterprise, self-confidence and stamina to succeed as a costermonger. Before long, Jack was carting his wares to a different London market every day but Sunday. Jack married Sarah Fox, or "Cissie", in 1924; so great was her support of her husband's ambition that the money they received in wedding presents was invested in a wholesale venture.
The creation of the Tesco name was in fact more accident than design. Tea supplied in chests by Mr T. E. Stockwell was sold in packets by Jack, branded with the name Tesco – a hasty conjunction of Mr Stockwell's initials with the beginning of Jack's surname. Sir Jack became known as the "grocery doctor", who was always ready to relieve wholesalers, importers and manufacturers of unwanted goods. The appointment of a book-keeper in 1930 allowed him to concentrate on expanding his operations – until then, he had kept no account books and had a slightly chaotic approach to record-keeping. A deal with Amalgamated Dairies in the same year lifted his turnover to £50,000 following some astute re-branding of a sub-standard product.
At the beginning of the 1930s, Sir Jack's shrewd ability to identify new markets drew him to the new covered arcades serving London's growing suburbs. He rented a stand in an arcade in Tooting, and then built an open-fronted store at Dartford which combined storage space with a retail outlet. In 1932, Tesco Stores Ltd was registered, and the first shops opened under the Tesco name at Becontree and Burnt Oak, and by 1939 Sir Jack had acquired a hundred stores in the London area.
Inevitably, the outbreak of the Second World War halted Sir Jack's plans for further growth, but following the opening of Britain's first self-service shop in 1942, he was inspired to travel to America to investigate the emerging trend for self-service "supermarkets". He found that post-war Britain, constrained by rationing, was not initially receptive to his attempts to reproduce the "gleaming palaces" he had found in the United States. However, the 1950s saw triumphant expansion: Tesco's first supermarket – a store with over 2,000 square feet of trading floor – opened in 1956. Take-overs brought even faster growth in the 1960s, and by 1968, Tesco was the fourth largest chain in Britain.
True to his early principle, "pile it high, sell it cheap", Sir Jack campaigned against resale price maintenance (RPM), which inhibited price cutting; he defended his right to slash with Green Shield stamps, effectively lowering prices. The abolition of RPM in 1964 marked a major shift in British retail and the focus moved firmly from the traditional shop to the supermarket. However, Sir Jack's empire retained traces of the small-scale East End concern with his extended family being involved at every stage of its development. When he retired in 1970, having been knighted the previous year, his leading role was taken on by his two sons-in-law. In his final decade Sir Jack Cohen took an active interest in residential homes for poor and elderly Jews, whilst continuing to exert influence at Tesco. He died in 1979.
Attending the unveiling the Chief Executive of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy said: "This plaque is a fitting tribute to a man who, aided by an industrious spirit and canny business sense turned adversity into opportunity. Jack Cohen was not only a personal success but helped create jobs and prosperity for many across the country throughout his long career.
"His story started off a simple one, borne of a need to earn a living in post-war London. This impressive man allied with a strong work ethic and a healthy dose of optimism then embarked on a new occupation as a retailer of popular goods - unaware how his actions would help shape the future of retail in this country.
"I like to think that some of Jack Cohen's entrepreneurial spirit lives on in Tesco today as we build an international business and look to serve customers in new markets such as banking, telecommunications and on-line shopping."
Sir Jack's success lay in his ability to identify a retail approach that strongly appealed to the public – he applied his irresistible street-market techniques to the shop, supermarket, and superstore There can be no doubt of the impact that his vision has had on the lives of most people in Britain; since 1995 the company he founded has been the UK's largest retailer, and it is now expanding rapidly overseas.
For further information, contact Helen Bowman.