Michael Marks immigrated to England around 1882. He was a young Polish Jew with hardly a penny to his name. He arrived unable to speak the English language, and lacking any marketable trade experience. Within his lifetime, however, he would found one of the most widely known companies in the world: Marks & Spencer.
Marks was born in 1859 to Jewish parents in Slonim, then a part of Russian Poland. In 1882, he sought to escape anti-Jewish repression and looked to England as a solution. He had heard of a company called Barran in Leeds that was known to employ Jewish refugees, so off to Leeds he went.
Despite his lack of trade skills, Marks had a shrewd business mind. He had a knack for understanding what customers wanted and how to provide those goods and services.
In 1884, Marks met a Leeds warehouse owner named Isaac Dewhurst. Marks arranged a deal in which he would purchase products from Dewhurst’s warehouse and then sell them in the villages around Leeds. He learned English fairly quickly as he travelled throughout the towns and villages of West Yorkshire, carrying his bag full of wares.
Using the proceeds from his travelling sales, he invested in a permanent market stall in Leeds’ open market which quickly grew into a bustling little business. The venture was so successful that he opened stalls at markets in Castleford and Wakefield as well. He set himself apart from others in the market by clearly displaying prices on each of his products – a practice that was unusual at the time, but one that his customers clearly appreciated.
Eventually, Marks began renting a space at the new covered market in Leeds, which allowed him to operate six days a week. He had a few stalls, but his most popular by far was his penny stall. Prominently displayed was the message “Don’t Ask the Price, It’s a Penny.” The next few years would see more of Marks’ penny stalls opened in market halls across Yorkshire and Lancashire.
In hopes of further expanding his business, Marks approached Dewhurst with the idea of a partnership. Dewhurst wasn’t interested, but he directed Marks to his cashier, Tom Spencer. Spencer had observed Marks’ steady rise and business acumen, and felt that the required £300 investment was a safe one.
The new partners divided the work according to their particular strengths. While Marks continued to run the market stalls, Spencer managed the office and supply lines, capitalizing on contacts he had made with manufacturers while working for Dewhurst. Marks and Spencer soon had stores running in Liverpool, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, Sheffield, Bristol, Hull, Manchester, Sunderland, and Cardiff.
By 1897, Marks and Spencer were running a miniature empire of thirty six branches. They built new stores in Bradford, Northampton, Preston, Swansea, and Leicester, as well as several branches in London. They also constructed a new warehouse in Manchester, which became their home office.
Marks & Spencer became a limited company in 1903. While Spencer soon retired, Marks continued to grow the company until his death in December of 1907.
In addition to his status as a great businessman, Marks was also remembered as a great philanthropist. He was widely known and respected in the community, and his life, work and generosity were celebrated by the largest attendance ever seen by the Manchester Jewish Cemetery