George Washington Jenkins, Jr. (September 29, 1907 – April 8, 1996) was an American businessman and philanthropist who founded Publix Super Markets. As of 2011, the employee-owned, privately held corporation included 1,053 stores in the southeastern United States with 151,500 employees and sales of $27 billion. Jenkins was born in Warm Springs, Georgia, and his family owned a general store in the community of Harris, Georgia, catering primarily to farmers. In the 1920s, the local cotton fields were decimated by the boll weevil, prompting Jenkins' father to move his business to Atlanta where people had money to buy groceries. Young Jenkins stayed behind to sell the remaining inventory and finish high school. In 1924, he also moved to Atlanta and enrolled at Georgia Tech, going to classes at night, and working days. Jenkins tried a series of jobs, including cab driver (he quit on the first day after getting stiffed for a fare); selling shoes (too slow); selling candy bars on consignment (nobody purchased them); and delivering grocery orders for his father's store. For reasons unknown, he never worked at his father's store to learn the business. He began as a clerk for Piggly Wiggly stores and after eight weeks, was sent to replace a manager who was recovering from an illness. From that point on, his job was temporary manager at all the owner's stores. After four months, Jenkins was not convinced that the grocery business would become his vocation, so he accepted a job selling real estate; he sold one house, collecting a substantial commission. However, his boss was convinced that a fortune could be made in the south Florida land boom. They made plans for the trip, but the wife of his boss refused to go, so Jenkins went by himself.About that time, a friend invited Jenkins to join him on a trip to visit family in Sarasota. They stopped in Gainesville, but Jenkins' sister had left on a family visit herself, so the friend took him on to Tampa, where Jenkins knew a man who managed a laundry. That friend encouraged Jenkins to stay the week and, while viewing the sights, they visited another man who owned more than a dozen Piggly Wiggly markets. After learning of Jenkins' grocery experience in Atlanta, the man offered him a job. Jenkins accepted, intending to return to school in the Fall, but within a few weeks, his boss was so impressed that Jenkins was promoted to manage the store in St. Petersburg and school was postponed. By keeping his store well-stocked and clean, Jenkins saw his sales more than quadruple in less than a year. He was transferred to the company's largest store in Winter Haven, which he managed for four years.
In 1930, the state of Florida was reeling: the real estate bubble burst in 1925, followed by the 1926 Miami hurricane, the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane, and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The chain's owner was forced to sell his stores, which were purchased by a businessman in Atlanta. The new owner chose not to visit his new property, so Jenkins decided to visit him to talk about the future. Jenkins drove to Atlanta, showed up at the man's office, introduced himself to the secretary and asked to see the owner. The response was that the owner was not available due to a critical business consultation, but Jenkins could hear the owner talking on the telephone about his golf game. Enraged, Jenkins returned to Winter Haven and began plotting a strategy; he decided to open his own store and compete directly with the new owner.
Although the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, Jenkins incorporated Publix Food Stores in 1930 with 30 shares, each valued at $100. He kept 13 for himself and sold 4 to friends. The butcher and assistant manager at Piggly Wiggly each purchased another 4 shares, raising $1,200 to supplement Jenkins' savings of $1,300. He and five employees opened a new market next door to his former employer. The chain fought back, bringing in a handsome and charming manager from Miami who supposedly garnered all the customers wherever he went. The two stores began a series of one-upmanships, where the Piggly Wiggly store would offer a shopping premium, and Jenkins' Publix would offer something better. The first year was difficult, but Jenkins' store covered its expenses, and the Piggly Wiggly closed its doors. As the economy improved, the store did better, and five years later, a second store was opened on the other side of town.
During the depression, Jenkins had purchased an orange grove. In 1940, he used that as collateral to secure a $70,000 bank loan to build the store of his dreams, the first supermarket in Florida. Described as a "food palace", the building had lots of glass and marble, with a stucco exterior. There was a paved parking lot, and the front entrance utilized an electric eye automatic door opener. The interior was air conditioned, with bright fluorescent lighting, wide aisles and music playing in the background. The open dairy cases were custom designed, and freezers offered frozen food. These features were unheard of in the grocery business at that time. The original two Publix stores were closed, but Jenkins realized that he would have to open many more stores to be successful.
Building materials were scarce during World War II, so Jenkins purchased Lakeland Grocery Company, which included a chain of All American Food Stores, in 1945. The company was headquartered in Lakeland, Florida, and included 19 locations. He promptly moved the Publix offices to Lakeland Groceries' existing buildings in the larger city. Jenkins travelled frequently, for he was always looking for products and innovations to improve his stores. In the 1950s, bakeries and flower shops were added, delicatessens came in the 1960s, and in the 1980s, pharmacies and Presto!, a network of no-charge automated teller machines. In the early 1990s, the chain began to expand outside of Florida, starting in Georgia. By 1995, there were over 500 supermarkets in three states with almost 100,000 employees and sales of $9.4 billion. As of 2012, Publix operated stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Jenkins never returned to complete his academic education at Georgia Tech. In 1947, he marrried Anne MacGregor, a registered nurse. They had seven children: Howard, Kenneth, David, Delores, Carol, Nancy and Julie. The couple divorced in 1974.
Jenkins suffered a stroke on August 8, 1989, but continued to work and visit his supermarkets in a wheelchair. Jenkins died in 1996 at Lakeland Regional Medical Center and was buried in Oak Hill Burial Park in Lakeland. He left his wealth to the George M. Jenkins Fund (charity) and his family, which continues to control the company. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles stated, "George (Jenkins) made a tremendous contribution to our business climate, but perhaps more importantly, he was a true civic leader who had a deep dedication to improving our communities." The founder's son, Howard M. Jenkins, has been Chairman of the Board since 1990.
Jenkins established the George W. Jenkins Foundation in 1966 to improve Publix communities. After Jenkins' death, the foundation's name became Publix Super Markets Charities. Jenkins' daughter, Carol Jenkins Barnett, serves as its president. In addition to local charities, the corporation supports five national campaigns: Special Olympics, March of Dimes, Children's Miracle Network, United Way of America, and Food for All.
Jenkins was once asked by an interviewer "What would you be worth today if you had not given so much of your money to charity?" Jenkins reply, "Nothing."
Jenkins was elected president of the Supermarket Institute in 1961 and served through 1963. The article, "The Grocer the Girls All Love – George Jenkins, Lakeland, Florida" appeared in the October 16, 1954, issue of the Saturday Evening Post.