Red Circle & Gold Leaf

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(3 of 9)

In the Throne Room. John Hartford moves at a pace that would exhaust younger men. In good weather he walks the 18 blocks from his weekday suite at the Plaza Hotel to mid-Manhattan's Graybar Building, throne room of A & P's vast empire. At 9:30 sharp he strides through one of Ralph Burger's offices, turns right into his own thickly draped, richly paneled office. At 11:05 a.m., Mr. George arrives. Not till both are in can any important matter be settled. Since they share equal power in A & P's affairs, both must agree before any new policy is adopted.

They frequently disagree—at first. George, the self-taught expert on finance, usually holds back, raises the practical obstacles, demanding: "If we do this, where's the money to come from?" John, the bold empire builder, is always tugging ahead, might overreach himself but for George.

Sometimes they argue back & forth while other A & P executives sit in the room, patiently waiting for the brothers to agree. One of their biggest arguments was whether to cash checks. Mr. John said yes, shrewdly figuring that those who brought in checks would spend part of their cash for groceries. Mr. George answered: "No, we have no business in the banking business. Besides, some of the checks will bounce." Mr. John won and today A & P cashes $2 billion worth of checks a year. The losses are negligible, but Mr. George still shakes his head over the matter. Said he only last week: "He won that one, like he wins most of the arguments. But we still don't agree on it. We're a couple of strong characters."

John stands in obvious awe of his older brother, yet likes to needle him gently for his plodding, painstaking ways. "Remember the watermelons, George?" he likes to say. John goes on to explain: "George came in one morning and wanted to see our produce people. He said our prices were out of line on watermelons. He'd stopped off at the Washington Market on his way in and saw some melons cheaper than ours. The produce man answered, 'Those melons are smaller.' 'No, they're not,' said George, 'I measured them.' "

At exactly 2:30 p.m. every work day, Mr. George (who eats no lunch) goes through a 70-year-old ritual. He nibbles cookies and cake while he makes a "blind" test of five brands of coffee, including A & P's three blends (Eight O'Clock, Red Circle, Bokar) to make sure that the flavor of the company's coffee has not changed.

Knives & Limburger. Nothing that passes through A & P's headquarters is too small for John Hartford's eye. One morning his secretary found him throwing knives at a target in his office. A truck driver had sued A & P, charging he had been injured by a knife thrown by an A & P clerk. John made his tests to see if it was possible to hit a man at the distance claimed, proved it unlikely, won his case.

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