Joseph Turner Newton (1912 - 1997)
To find a word or phrase that best describes Joseph T. Newton, Jr. is nearly impossible. He is praised for his initiative, leadership, compassion and integrity. But perhaps the most apt, and the most likely way he might portray himself, is “family man.”
In fact, Newton’s Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company is the very definition of a family business. In the rarest sense, it is a family that extends beyond the immediate relatives to include store operators, employees, customers and the community.
Joseph Turner Newton, Jr., was born March 2, 1912, at Rocky Ford, Ga., the son of Joseph T. Newton, a farmer and merchant, and Florence Johnson Newton, who died when he was young. Newton and his brothers and sister grew up in a tight knit extended family that included aunts, uncles and grandparents. In his youth he was greatly influenced by his grandmother, whose favorite saying was, “Work is the salvation of the Earth.” It was a “Newtonism” that he would often repeat during his lifetime.
Newton finished Rocky Ford High School in 1927, and planned to attend Georgia Southern College, but tuition was not available. Instead, he went to work as a bookkeeper in a veneer mill.
During the Great Depression, Newton served in the 1434th Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps based in Waycross, Ga. His commanding officer, John C. Bahsen, gave Newton a glowing recommendation. “Newton has proven himself to be a person of dependability, excellent initiative, good judgment and all other features that make an all around good man,” Bahsen wrote. “In summary, Newton is a man that is not contented with just ‘getting along,’ but is a man that is alert, ambitious and eager to better himself that sets him off from the average.”
In his early twenties Newton followed family tradition by working in the grocery business. At Richmond Hill, Ga., he ran a commissary on the plantation of automotive magnate Henry Ford, who owned a large portion of Bryan County at the time.
Later Newton began working as a meat salesman and was eventually transferred to Charleston. He started work as a butcher at Mize’s Meat Market, became a working partner with the owner, and was eventually able to finance the purchase of neighboring Brown’s Meat Market, which during World War II was one of the largest meat markets in the Southeast. The business included a delivery system using bicycles.
He soon realized that small, independent grocers could save money by purchasing their stock from a central warehouse rather than each store having to deal with 20 or more different suppliers for their merchandise. Newton was convinced that with a central buying office, he could bargain for lower prices on volume purchases from all suppliers and supply stores at a lower cost.
Having scrimped and saved every penny possible during those early years, Newton set out to purchase a Piggly Wiggly grocery franchise from the Memphis-based Piggly Wiggly Corporation.
In 1947, he succeeded. Along with F. Marion Brabham and William L. Poplin, Newton organized the franchise, initially opening three stores in the Charleston area. One by one, Newton convinced owners of small grocery stores to join the franchise, and very soon the round sign with the smiling Pig’s face became a familiar landmark throughout South Carolina and later in Savannah, Georgia.
Of Newton, Brabham said, “Untold numbers of people have benefited from this man’s success. Through business, family and personal relationships, Newton has practiced the Golden Rule. He is truly an example of that rare breed, an honorable man.”
Under the Piggly Wiggly franchise, Newton opened his first warehouse on Charlotte Street in Charleston and began supplying food products and advertising, spreading the umbrella of a name that attracted customer loyalty.
Newton called on stores for orders personally. There was one delivery truck and workdays often stretched far into the night.
Newton was married to Ruby Scott Newton for more than 40 years. Their family consisted of two sons, Joseph III and Harold, who died in a plane crash in 1974, and two daughters, Marion Schools and Joanne Ayers. After his first wife’s death, he married Christine Tarrant Pacquette.
Newton’s son-in-law, Burt Schools, joined the business in 1958 and son, Joseph T. “Buzzy” Newton III, in 1962, both working in various areas learning the business from the bottom up. It was also during the early 1960s that the business expanded into Columbia and underwent a name change from Piggly Wiggly Wholesale to Piggly Wiggly Carolina. It was the largest expansion for the company up to that time.
In its first year of business, Piggly Wiggly had a retail volume of $1.8 million. By 1987, gross sales volume exceeded $450 million. In 1997, Piggly Wiggly had 30 stores in the Lowcountry and about 105 throughout South Carolina and the Savannah area. Piggly Wiggly Carolina was the largest privately owned grocery chain in South Carolina, with annual sales of about $700 million. In 2002, Piggly Wiggly was the third largest privately held company in South Carolina. With more than 5,000 employees, it is also the 12th largest employer in the state. Not a bad return from a $20,000 investment in 1947.
Through the years, Newton also either started or acquired other businesses, including Greenbax Enterprises, Newton Builders and Tri-State Printing, that helped to enhance the core supermarket enterprise.
Under Newton’s guidance and leadership, Piggly Wiggly Carolina became a household word, known for its fair prices and friendly service. Customers in ever growing numbers depended on the original self-service supermarket for their total food needs. It was like coming home, and Newton was gifted in hiring dedicated employees who understood and embraced the family concept that was the trademark of Piggly Wiggly.
Newton shaped the company into not only the friendliest place in town but also one which valued and appreciated its employees and store operators. Mr. Joe, as he was known by his employees and customers, was not just a successful businessman but he was also an outstanding person, wrote David Fields, Jr., in a letter to the editor of the Charleston Post and Courier. “He did many things quietly for the community, including donating the property for the Crisis Ministries and much other philanthropy. Every Saturday morning, the Piggly Wiggly stores on Meeting Street and James Island give me food to take to needy families, so Joe’s work is still going on.”
When Newton’s son-in-law, Burton Schools, retired from Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company in 1998, he said that the most rewarding part of his 40 years with the company was to know young people who came to the company and stayed, and to watch and help them grow to become important people with the company and great adults and great contributors to the community. He said Newton once told him a person’s greatest contribution is to train his or her replacement.
In the late 1970s, Newton began turning over daily operation of the business to his son and son-in-law. Buzzy Newton became president of Piggly Wiggly Carolina, and Burt Schools president of Greenbax Enterprises. Newton continued as chairman until his death on August 15, 1997, at age 85, the same year that Piggly Wiggly celebrated its 50th anniversary. Burt Schools holds the position of chairman today. “He started with three little stores and built this into what it is today. We owe everything to him,” said his son.
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. summed it up at the time of Newton’s death. “Joe Newton was an all-American success story,” he said. “He had a brilliant idea. He was ahead of his time and he used his energy and intellect to create a wonderfully successful company that means so much to the Charleston area, not only in economic expansion and the quality of his company, but in the way he cared for store managers and employees.”
Newton, who was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2003, left behind one of the state’s leading retail businesses and a legacy of caring philanthropy that continues to serve South Carolina long and well. That is the Newton family tradition and something Mr. Joe would not have had any other way.
He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
© 2003 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame