19th Century books and documents
posted June 2005
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THE YANKEE OF THE YARDS
THE BIOGRAPHY OF
GUSTAVUS FRANKLIN SWIFT
GUSTAVUS FRANKLIN SWIFT ABOUT I902. A PASS CARD FOR VISITORS ABOUT THAT TIME.
By LOUIS F. SWIFT
IN COLLABORATION WITH
ARTHUR VAN VLISSINGEN, JR.
CHICAGO & NEW YORK,
A. W. SHAW COMPANY
LONDON, A. W. SHAW AND COMPANY, LIMITED
SWIFT & COMPANY
JUST RIGHT OR ALL WRONG
MANY a man of equal ability has left behind to witness his prowess no such structure as my father left. I have no doubt that many such men have consciously chosen not to. As between a career of undivided attention to business and a life rounded out by a catholicity of interests, they have selected the broader. For them it means greater contentment.
No such choice was thinkable to G. F. Swift. With never a backward look of regret for those pleasures of life which by his choice he perforce left untasted, he unhesitatingly elected to be master of his own business. The cost was more than other men might willingly pay. His whole mind and heart and strength went into building up his packing enterprise. Church and family alone excepted, he had little time or inclination left for outside interests.
Had he been less than unusually able, he could not have succeeded so well in accomplishing his purpose. Yet ability could not by itself have done what he did. His thoroughness was the source of his magic-working dissatisfaction with half measures. Father could not be happy if anything with which he was connected functioned short of one hundred per cent.
Whether it was the way the beef was dressed, or
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the salt slush left on icy walks by a careless plant engineer—he would go to the root of the trouble and do his best to correct it for all time to come. On both of these subjects I have heard him deliver repeated lectures to employees. And I cite them not because they were hobbies, but as random selections to typify the range over which his attention wandered.
He was a crank on doing things right, or at least some of his men thought him so. Actually, of course, he had so complete a comprehension of every detail from buying the cattle to running a wholesale market that he saw not only the error but also the ultimate consequence of it.
He recognized that no business can ever attain perfection in all of its operations. But he was determined that his own should come as close to that goal as could any. It is my sincere conviction that he carried his determination over into the realm of accomplishment.
When he found grease in the East St. Louis plant's oil-house sewer, he visualized the irate oleomargarine maker in Rotterdam sputtering guttural expletives because many casks of the shipment he had counted on to keep his plant running had leaked themselves empty in transit. When he observed an Austrian bruise-trimmer doing slovenly work at Kansas City, he appreciated how this must lower the customer's opinion of Swift beef—and to him it made no difference whether that quarter of beef was destined for the epicure of Beacon Hill or the Italian family of South Boston. The individual error, which to the man on
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the job was of tiny consequence, in his chief's mind translated itself into losing a good customer—and losing thousands of good customers if the error should continue.
To the oil-house foreman or the bruise-trimmer's boss, my father doubtless seemed an unreasonable old gentleman who made a tremendous fuss about very little. On every subsequent visit to East St. Louis he lifted the sewer board of the oil-house cooler. Quite as unvaryingly on each inspection in Kansas City he stopped to watch the way the knife sliced out the bruises. Since he continued checking up on these operations several times a year for the rest of his life, to many of his people they doubtless seemed like hobbies of his.
Basically, of course, he comprehended a fundamental commercial truth: If everything is done right, if errors are held below the errors of competitors, and if a business serves an economic end, then it must prosper. He schooled himself to do everything absolutely right, and to expect the same of everyone else.
Perhaps the one point where he laid the most emphasis on having everything done absolutely right was in cleanliness. He insisted on cleanliness both because he liked it—it fitted in with his ideas of doing things right—and because it cut down spoilage materially.
The most noticeable improvement of the Chicago packing houses over the old local slaughterhouses was
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in cleanliness and sanitation. And father was the leader in this respect.
He had learned the lesson when he was a local retail dealer in meats back East. In those days when refrigeration was little employed, if at all, in the preservation of fresh meats, he had found out that meat which is handled fastidiously and kept in well-scrubbed containers does not spoil so quickly as when it is handled in slovenly fashion.
The principle, of course, is universal. There is less loss in handling steel or coal, just as with meat, if it is kept in a clean, orderly, well-planned way. In handling perishable foodstuffs this is outstandingly important.
But cleanliness cannot be obtained without eternal watchfulness. Dirt will accumulate if vigilance is relaxed. And the average human being seldom considers it worth while to keep up the fight.
Proof that it pays had come to him—rather he had worked it out—at Clinton, Massachusetts. After his original start with twenty-five dollars, nineteen of which bought a heifer and yielded a profit of ten dollars, he had scraped together a little capital for working funds—it was far from a fortune. It took him fourteen years from that start to save up enough money to carry out any plan at all extensive.
His first ambitious enterprise was opening a large retail meat market at Clinton. This was a move from sandy, sparse Cape Cod to the richer, more populous hinterland.
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There were already here two or three small meat markets serving the local mill hands. They served, that is, by carrying a meagre stock of meats which they kept in their ice boxes—for by 1869 refrigeration was coming a little more generally into use. When a customer stated a desire for a given cut, the market man disappeared into the murky recesses and emerged either with a piece of meat from which he cut what was desired, or else with the information that he did not have the requested variety in stock.
There was no attractive display and no effort at cleanliness beyond what common sense dictated would save on meat spoilage. There was a deal of greasiness and little of daintiness.
My father, in his trips around New England buying and selling cattle, had done his best to sate his unquenchable inquisitiveness about anything bearing on the meat trade. He had consequently noticed that in the larger cities like Worcester and Providence and Boston the prosperous meat dealers were those who made their stores pleasant and their service nice.
So in his new Clinton market he put into effect all of his ideas which seemed practical from among those he had observed and he added a number of others he had never seen tried. Perhaps the larger cities had meat markets as attractive as his at Clinton. Certainly no other towns of that size had its equal, in quality or size.
To Swift's Market came wives of the hungry mill hands who made Bigelow Carpets and Lancaster
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Ginghams. They liked the cleanliness of the place— the clean windows, the clean floors covered with clean, fresh sawdust, the neatly scrubbed butcher blocks and counters. They were a bit awed by the white marble trays on which cuts of meat were displayed—but not too awed to buy the meat.
For the proprietor of this store deserved his reputation of being a finicky meat seller. He insisted then, just as he insisted all of his life thereafter, that "good enough" was never good enough. He wanted everything right, every iota of it. If it was not, then someone was in trouble.
The natives were not used to this nicety of handling meat, nor were they used to seeing cuts of meat on display. Father displayed those cuts which he most needed to dispose of. People who came in bought them as a matter of course. And right here is where he learned some of the fundamentals which were to prove of utmost value in later years when Swift's Market at Clinton was but a memory and Swift & Company at Chicago was taking all of his attention. The fundamentals of selling which he had been developing in his earlier career and which had been shaping themselves in his mind came into their clear-cut shapes at Clinton. How he used them to develop one of the world's largest businesses must be reserved for a subsequent chapter.
From the store he had men operating three meat wagons which daily sold over regular routes. His own experience back on Cape Cod had included
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driving a meat cart or two with himself as sole proprietor. Now, however, he was hiring others to do this for him.
The carts were doing a business of perhaps twenty-five dollars a day apiece. The market was doing about fifty a day over the counter. And if you question whether thirty-five to forty thousand dollars a year was a substantial volume for a small-town meat dealer in those days, ask some old New England housewife what her mother paid for meat about 1870. For fifteen cents a good-sized family could have a meat meal; for twenty-five cents the table could carry generous helpings of the choicest beef ribs or loins.
Principally it was cleanliness and the will to do things right which had made the Clinton market such a success. These fundamentals are quite as important today—more important, even—in any business which deals with the general public. Standards have gone up. The show market at Clinton would be an altogether ordinary market in any city of the same size today. Any man who wants to stand out above competition must set new standards, just as my father set new standards when he opened the Clinton market.
That is why he made a good profit regularly out of the Clinton business. He always maintained that if an operation was performed correctly, we made money by it. Often after we had undertaken some activity which lost money for us and kept on losing money, he would say: "We lose because we haven't
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learned yet how to do it. When we know how to do it right, we'll begin to make it pay. But you can't expect to make money when you do a thing wrong."
So he was always checking up, always looking for things that were not being done exactly right. When he inspected a plant—and. this was frequent in his routine—he would not let anyone go ahead of him. He did not want it known that he was on the way.
He never looked at the big, showy things for cleanliness. He looked in corners, down sewers, under benches, and in the least well lighted parts of coolers.
When he found something wrong, sarcasm was his working tool for getting it corrected. "I think you ought to hang an electric light on that so you could see it," he told the foreman in charge of a beef cooler when he found a long, heavy cobweb swinging down from the ceiling.
"Do you think tallow's going down?" he inquired of his brother Nat, in charge of the mutton cooler at the Chicago wholesale market. Nat's frock was very greasy.
"I don't know," responded Nathaniel.
"Well, I think it's going up. If I was you, I'd fry out that frock right away. It's a chance to make a good bit of money."
There was another time, when a new foreman could not lay his hands on a clean white frock promptly after word reached him by grapevine telegraph that "G. F." was on the way. So he slipped out of his
THE YANKEE OF THE YARDS
dirty frock, and donned a new tan overcoat of fashionable cut.
"Do you work here?" was the first question.
"Yes, sir; I'm the foreman."
"I guess you didn't come down to stay all day," he commented.
The foreman needed no further hint. Off came his new coat. He went through the department without a frock. And today, risen to plant superintendent, he testifies that not since then has he ever mislaid his frock—nor ever worn a dirty one. That sort of thing, multiplied by thousands, is a contribution which father left us and which will never be outgrown. For the men he trained are training others in the same ways; and his lessons are thus passed on direct from one business generation to the next.
It was back before the days of concrete floors that he stopped, suspiciously eyed the planking, and asked the foreman of the killing floor at Kansas City: "How do you keep these floors clean?"
"We scrub them with soap every night, and once a week with sal soda," answered the foreman.
"We advertise cleanliness," observed his chief. "Use sal soda every night," he directed the plant superintendent who was going through with him. And the foreman, still active on a like job, remarks, "G. F. was the greatest man for sal soda ever I see!"
On this same killing floor, on the same visit, he called the foreman's attention to a negro cattle skinner who always put his foot on the inside of the
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hide. No one saw anything wrong with that. "Wait until they hoist the carcass," urged the president.
Sure enough, in the process the footprint from the inside of the hide—harmless enough in that place— "offset" onto the carcass when it was hoisted. It looked for all the world as if someone had been standing on the carcass. And it was not a sanitary practice.
No one had ever noticed this before, though the negro said he had been doing it ever since he came to work a year and a half before. Only a man with complete grasp of every detail of a complex business could have seen why this was bad practice. Father saw in passing what had escaped the men who spent full time right there. And with his passion for cleanliness and for having everything done shipshape, he corrected the situation at once.
One time back in the '90s while I was out of town, he took occasion every afternoon for weeks on end to call in a youngster who worked under me. Daily he lectured him about the crumbs of suet on the outside of carcasses dressed in this youngster's department. Finally the young man succeeded in getting everyone to brush off the crumbs of suet. It was years after the employee became manager of one of our largest plants that he discovered for himself why the old gentleman was so vehement about this. The broken tissues of the crumbs of suet allow mold spores to get a start, and thus to depreciate the carcass. G. F. Swift probably did not know this specifically. But
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he knew that anything perfectly clean and orderly kept longer than the same thing when mussy. The suet crumbs did not belong on the carcasses, hence he fussed about it until he got the beef coming through right.
In the early days he fired a floorsman at Chicago for having dirty arms—always a pet irritation to him. But this floorsman was a skilled workman. So the superintendent hired him back two years after, thinking that it had all been forgotten.
Three days afterwards father was going through the plant. "Isn't that the man I fired for dirty arms a year or so ago?"
"Yes, Mr. Swift."
"All right, fire him again. When I fire anybody, I want him to stay fired until I vote on him." Dirtiness around the plant was an unforgivable sin.
On every loading platform of our plants stood a tripe keg. The boy who swept off the platform had as part of his duty to pick up any fat which might fall off the carcasses and put it in the tripe keg before someone crushed it under foot. Never did father cross a shipping platform without looking up and down for these bits of crotch fat. If one was found flattened against the planking, the foreman and the boy both heard of it. For when this was overlooked, it crossed two of his prime ideas—it was dirty and it was wasteful. Either was a misdemeanor—the combination constituted a major crime.
Everything connected with the handling of his
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goods was just right or else it was all wrong. He allowed no middle ground.
For example, he never failed to look over the beef coolers. It was part of his routine every time he visited a plant. He would don a frock and spend half an hour or so squinting down the long rows of beef carcasses. He paid particular attention to the neck fat and how it was trimmed. It must be trimmed to exactly the right conformation to look pleasing, but there must not be a hair's breadth extra trimmed off. Fat on the carcass was worth the carcass or quarter price. Trimmed off, it was tankage, or, at best, oleo oil.
If he saw a carcass which looked wrong somehow as he squinted down the long row, he would examine it closely. If he saw a dark spot on the sawdust covering of the floor, there was bound to be trouble. Things must be clean; things must be done right. Anything else called for a reprimand.
When it came to the cuts, his inspection was likewise of the closest. Beef ribs are very desirable and bring a high price. Chuck is not so highly thought of by the American housewife and therefore is less in demand. When a carcass is cut absolutely right, it yields nine per cent rib and twenty-six per cent chuck. If the cut is made at the wrong place, the carcass will yield perhaps eight per cent rib and twenty-seven per cent chuck. He never lost an opportunity to point out to a foreman what it cost to do this wrong.
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For father was a teacher, along with his insistence on doing everything right. I remember when I was nine or ten years old, back in Massachusetts, how he used to get me up sometimes before daylight to help him butcher a steer. My part was to hold the lantern.
Boylike, I would become so interested in some side line of activity that I would forget my part of the job. He never used to lose his temper, even though the lantern would go into eclipse just at the moment when he most needed its light. Instead he would say: "You'll want to know some day how to do what I'm doing now. Hold the lantern so that you can see. Then I can see, too."
He knew how to buy cattle and how to pick cattle buyers. He knew that the only way to buy cattle was by the most painstaking care and that the only way to check up on the results was to look over the cattle as they came to the skinning floor.
When father first came to Chicago, everyone used to laugh at his habit of riding a low Texas pony which left his legs dangling almost to the ground. He would ride around on his low-slung steed buying his cattle and caring little what anyone else might think. He knew why he was doing it and he knew he was right.
In the first place, he could let himself into a cattle pen without bothering to get off his horse—or without taking a boy around with him to do this job. But more important still, he was down at about the
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level of the cattle's backs. He could reach over and feel the butts of the cattle to see whether there was any fat there. A great many wise jokes were made about this habit of his.
Finally, however, someone inquired just why he felt the rump of every beef animal he bought. "Back where I ship these cattle to, they're bought that way. That's how I sell 'em, and how I buy 'em." He was simply applying at Chicago the test which he knew each animal would have to meet when it reached Brighton or Albany. And when his cattle brought a better price in those markets than did other shippers' cattle, this was the reason. He always tried to find out the right way to do a thing, and then he followed out this right procedure unfailingly.
There were dozens, yes hundreds, of points which he had settled as the best way of doing a thing, and on which he checked up by personal observation at every opportunity. Sometimes he could not demonstrate the right way. Nevertheless he knew what the wrong way was and what the right.
He stopped one day in the Chicago packing house to show one of his old-time New England butchers how to split a bullock. It was years since he had personally wielded a cleaver and his hand had lost its cunning. He did it clumsily and made a poor job of it. "Now, then, that's not how to do it," he explained to the old-timer, "but you know how it should be done. Do it the right way. If a thing's worth doing at all, it's worth doing right."
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If a thing's worth doing at all, it's worth doing right. This was father's creed and pretty nearly the whole set of rules he ran by. He repeated that copybook maxim thousands of times, to thousands of different people who worked for him. And he said it each time with the simple faith and conviction which made the other man appreciate the basic truth in the hackneyed words.
Every detail of the business was at his finger tips. He knew cattle-dressing, for example, as well as any one I have ever encountered. He insisted on prompt sticking to prevent dark meat. He always looked into the carcass to see that no skirt meat had been cut away with the viscera—for it is easy to lose a quarter-pound of meat per animal in this way, which really means something in the course of a day.
At St. Joseph a new method had been devised for performing an operation in splitting a hog—it consisted of using shears instead of a knife to split the aitch-bone, and is nowadays standard procedure. But at that time it had just been devised and was to be tested out at Chicago in my father's presence.
So at the appointed time he walked to the spot in the plant where the test was to be conducted. The hogs were in improper shape. Someone had scalded them and had left the hair on. Without a word he picked up a knife and began taking off the hair. Everybody else turned to and inside a few minutes the hogs were scraped.
Then he walked back to the place where he could
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see best and the others prepared for the test. The plant functionaries were all there. They showed him the new operation, explained to him its advantages, and awaited his verdict.
Not a word had he said from the time he saw the hogs hanging there. He had simply worked and listened.
Now when the others had finished talking and hung on his decision as to whether the new method should be considered standard henceforth, he said, to their surprise:
"You know, when you're dressing hogs you ought to take the hair off; you ought, ought to take the hair off. Never ought to leave a hog like that." And he walked, back to his office without a word about the new method of cutting the aitch-bone.
He was much more concerned about maintaining a right method than about adopting a new method. Therein he showed that common sense which distinguished his ways of working from those of so many men of greater apparent brilliance. Once he had a good method established he never allowed anyone, himself included, to overlook it. He was ready to supplant it at any time if a better method came his way. But he avoided that common failing of being so busy with new-hatched plans that he overlooked the old, tested, profitable methods.
His everlasting desire that things be done right was in no sense confined to his business. He felt exactly the same way in everything he came in
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contact with and used to go out of his way to see that things were done as they should be.
Father was not at all averse to doing them, if need be. He went to church regularly. I do not believe that he ever arose less than half a dozen times during a service to raise or lower a window or two. He wanted the ventilation of the church just right, just as he wanted every one of his refrigerator cars scrubbed out and cleaned with live steam between trips. It was not that he wanted to be officious— though I dare say a good many people thought him so in this respect. Rather it was his desire that the ventilation be right. Since the church could employ no corps of workmen to do the job, he was willing to do it himself.
He was always inveighing against a style which was current for several years of wearing black hats in the summer time. "You ought not to wear a black hat in the summer," he would tell his employees— or a caller from outside, perhaps someone he had never seen before that day. "Black draws the sun. You ought to wear a light hat." Again, it was not his desire to be meddlesome but rather his feeling that everything ought to be absolutely right all of the time. If it was not, if he saw anything which was not as it should be, it made him so uncomfortable that he tried to set it right.
At Omaha those men who drove their own horses to work (this was in the late '90s) maintained a horse shed with a boy in charge of their horses. My
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father's natural inquisitiveness led him thither one day and he did not think that everything was as it should be. "Your horses aren't looking very good. Better give 'em a bran mash once in a while," he directed.
It was almost a year later that he made his next visit to the Omaha plant. As soon as he was through in the office and on the plant he headed for the horse shed. The same boy was on the job. "Your horses look better than last time I saw them," was his comment. "Guess those bran mashes helped 'em along." He had trained himself never to forget anything until he had seen it to a successful conclusion. Even when he was running one of the world's largest businesses he could not overlook the condition of the horses he had noticed a year before.
It was the same way whether he was checking up on the loss of horse blankets at one of the Chicago wholesale markets or making sure that the standard shade of paint was being used on all Swift properties. In both instances he was interested in having things exactly right and also in saving money. But he was even more concerned with the lightness than he was with the saving.
In overseas selling, especially in England, he ran into trade abuses which could not be tolerated by his standards. He made, altogether, more than twenty trips across to get them cleared up.
When he started at it, American-dressed meats had no show to be sold either attractively or economically.
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Before he had finished with the job, American meats were going to Great Britain by the shipload and he was realizing the real value of his products. Moreover, a great deal more of his beef was being sold there than of locally raised beef.
He used to get up at three o'clock every morning in London to go over into Smithfield Market and check up on what was being done with his product. He would row with any marketman who tried to perpetuate a trade abuse. And eventually he cleaned the situation up. He was quite as interested in accomplishing this because it was right as because it gave him another profitable market—though he did not discount the market, at that.
Father's knowledge of every part of the business and his attention to the most minute details was one of the secrets of his operating success. While the microscopic eye was his for scrutinizing little things, he had the telescopic eye for surveying big things. And he never put on the wrong lens!
HE HAD TO SPREAD OUT
WHETHER right or wrong, father would expand his business at every opportunity. He was a born expansionist.
But he was not a plunger. He knew his business, knew it intimately and in great detail. Because he could see where others could only grope, his vision was steadily ahead of his time.
"That crazy man Swift," the wiseacres called him when he came to the Yards from the East and set his whole energy and twenty years' saving to accomplishing something at which everyone else had failed. No one had succeeded in shipping dressed meat east and disposing of it at a profit. It was one of those things which everyone knew couldn't be done.
His partner Hathaway, of the Boston firm of Hathaway & Swift, could see no chance for success —and Hathaway had been in the live-stock business a good many years longer than had his younger partner.
Hathaway knew, as did everyone else, a thousand reasons why nobody could sell Chicago-dressed beef in the East, and why the East would continue to eat meat from cattle shipped alive for slaughter at the point of consumption. So vehemently did each feel
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himself right that the partnership had to be dissolved, though with no break in the friendship.
So the younger Yankee was left to build himself a business, to build it on his dream and his accumulated capital of thirty thousand dollars—which was not enough even in 1875 to operate the smallest conceivable packing plant for thirty days. He started under the handicap of inadequate capital. He was not willing as so many men are willing to give his capital a chance to catch up with the size of his business. He could have done this in the first very few years after he succeeded in accomplishing "the impossible." But he would keep spreading out.
Always his vision ran ahead of his fellows, of his competition, and of his capital. Always he had under way some enterprise which strained almost to the breaking point the supply of working funds he could command. And despite this ability of his somehow to keep ahead of financial difficulties, his mind ran ahead of his financing ability—he felt himself held back because he had not enough money to do this or that. It was always so.
Even if he had lacked his insistent urge to expand, he would unquestionably have become a successful packer. His other abilities were too great for him to have made anything short of a success. It was his creed of "Expand, and then some more," which kept him from using his $30,000 to build one of the smaller packing establishments, one of the scores doing a profitable business in tens of millions of dollars.
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This creed it was which built him one of the very few transacting a volume in the hundred millions.
He always had an eye for business beyond the ken of others similarly situated. He was only nine years old, as a relative tells the story, when he walked into his grandfather's house and said, "Grandpa, I'll give you forty cents for the old white hen."
"All right," agreed his grandfather—and with no more ado the boy paid his money and went to catch his hen.
"Isn't that new business for Stave, buying hens?" inquired an older cousin who had been completely ignored by the nine-year-old intent on his job.
"Why," the grandfather answered, "he is here almost every day after one. He finds a customer somewhere. Seems to get enough out of it to pay."
There had to be some way for the boy to make money, if he was to have any for himself. Certainly there was no surplus for distribution among the twelve children on his father's sandy, unfertile Cape Cod farm. The best paying crop on Cape Cod today —almost the only paying crop—is summer boarders. For a good many years after Gustavus F. Swift's birth in 1839 the summer boarders had not begun their annual migration.
The boy saw little that was promising in life as a butcher's helper in a Cape Cod village. He had gone to work for his older brother Noble at fourteen and by his sixteenth birthday was making—be sure that he was earning—three dollars a week.
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Even in those days of 1855 the golden goal of ambitious Cape Cod lads was Boston. He began to lay his plans for a move to Boston and the West.
His father objected. He saw for his son no great future in the big city, equipped as he was with no fund of education, of business experience, or of demonstrated ability. He held that strong sixteen-year old country lads were a drug on the Boston market. To back up his ideas he was willing to do a fair share —more than a fair share, perhaps, when one considers the value of a cash dollar in his circumstances of life.
"You really want to be in the meat business, don't you?" he questioned his son. "All right, Stave, I'll give you twenty-five dollars to start up in the meat business around home. That way you can get your start right here, instead of going away to the city."
With this twenty-five dollars was started the business which is today Swift & Company. The lineage is straight as an arrow. For, twenty-five dollars in his pocket, the boy of sixteen set forth to enter the meat business.
He made a neighbor an offer for a good fat heifer he thought he might butcher to advantage. It is characteristic of his shrewdness as a trader—shrewdness as far above his age as was his shrewdness above other business men's thirty years later—that he did not, boylike, offer his whole twenty-five dollars. Whatever his original offer, he actually purchased the heifer for nineteen dollars, as he told the story in
SALLY SEARS CROWELL
SWIFT, MOTHER OF
G. F. SWIFT.
WILLIAM SWIFT, FATHER OF G. F. SWIFT.
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later life. He drove her home and slaughtered her in a shed. Now he was embarked in the retail meat business.
He cut up the beef, loaded the cuts into a wagon of his father's and set out to sell the meat in the neighborhood. Fortune favored the enterprise, another way of saying that he had used good judgment in buying the heifer, ample skill in cutting up the carcass, and sales ability in disposing of the cuts. He netted ten dollars out of the transaction for his time and trouble. Forthwith he went out to repeat the operation and the resultant profit.
For a few weeks or months he had ample capital— the only time in his business career when he had, except for the last two or three years of his life. But soon that active mind of his began to see larger opportunities which called for more working funds than he had been able to acquire by selling pot-roasts and steaks and ribs. He could always see the chance to make more money by doing on a larger scale.
The first occasion of this sort has been told by a cousin of my father's, E. W. Ellis, sixty-five years later. Thomas W. Goodspeed set it down1 as follows :
"He called on Uncle Paul Crowell (son of Grandfather Crowell and village storekeeper). I obtained this information a few days after from Uncle Paul himself. Stave said, 'I want to borrow some money. Will you lend it to me?'
1. The University of Chicago Biographical Sketches, Vol. I, p. 176.
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" 'Oh,' said Uncle Paul, 'how much do you want?'
" 'Four hundred dollars,' said Stave.
" 'Whew,' said Uncle Paul, 'what you going to do with it?'
" 'I want to go to Brighton stockyards and buy some pigs.'
" 'Why, that will be quite an undertaking for a boy.'
" 'Yet,' said Uncle Paul to me, 'I could but admire his ambition.'
"Brighton yards, located northwest of Boston, sixty miles distant! Just imagine it! The worst kind of sandy, crooked roads.....Well, in about ten days, he, with his drove, hove in sight at my father's home. He had sold some, but about thirty-five shoats were still with him. I looked over his outfit, which consisted of an old horse and a democrat wagon in which a few tired or lame pigs were enjoying a ride and a rest with their legs tied together. With him was another lad as helper, who was trying keep the shoats from straying. There was Stave, a tall, lank youth, with a rope and steelyards on his shoulder, also a short pole he carried in his hand that might do duty to suspend the squealers and steelyards between his shoulders and those of his customer. Father said: 'There is a good exhibition of ambition. Gustavus Swift will make a success in whatever business he undertakes. For he has the right make-up.' Gustavus made several such trips to Brighton for pigs, spring and fall, for two or three years."
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The occupation of drover under these conditions was at best highly seasonal. Outside the spring and fall months, he might have lacked occupation. Instead, he worked out a procedure which gave him a business. He arranged for quarters at Brighton stockyards where he could slaughter his animals.
Each Friday he bought a steer on the market there and slaughtered it on Saturday. The quarters he hung over Sunday. Monday morning bright and early saw him in his democrat wagon with the meat, bound for Cape Cod. By Friday he had sold his beef and was back at Brighton once more, making his weekly purchase of one animal.
From his repeated Monday-to-Friday trips the young man accumulated a little money—a very little, no doubt, but enough to give him a foothold as a retail meat dealer instead of a wagon peddler. So he opened a market at Eastham, which shortly afterward he turned over to his brother Nathaniel. Then he opened a meat market at Barnstable and settled down as the meat dealer for this town of five hundred.
Father and mother, Annie Maria Higgins, had been married during the short career at Eastham. At Barnstable they and their growing family—there were four of us children by then—remained some eight years. But it was not the retail business which held G. F. Swift. Rather it was a broad business he had developed, leaving the market to be run by a clerk. Once more he was at his habit of expanding.
Beginning as he had at sixteen and continuing
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without interruption as a cattle buyer, by the time he moved to Barnstable he had become an extremely good judge of cattle. There is no way to check up on the accuracy of a cattle buyer's judgment except to see how his purchases dress into beef. Even though his career had been active for only six or seven years, father had been seeing how each one of his cattle dressed—not only seeing it but also feeling with his own pocketbook the results of his judgment. In a man of his shrewdness the only possible result was that he became a remarkably good cattle buyer.
With his knack of seeing the opportunity for broadening out his activities, he had no sooner been set down in Barnstable than he began to wonder if he could not market Cape-Cod-raised cattle at a profit. The average farmer had only one or two head for sale in a season. The nearest market, besides the small local butchers like himself, was at Brighton beyond Boston. And it didn't pay to drive just one or two head to Brighton, even as low as the farmer valued his time.
So once more G. F. Swift ramified his business. To be sure, he kept the meat market, but this was now a side issue. He became a cattle dealer, buying on Cape Cod and selling at Brighton.
It is noticeable that, however he might expand or diversify his interests, he never deviated by a hair's thickness from the original direction of his work. Ever broader, ever making a little better living, ever building up his capital but spreading it just as thin
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as he safely could, he was on his way to founding the modern dressed meat industry!
By 1869, when he was thirty years old, he had accumulated enough to take his first step of any size. His capital was far from a fortune; it had taken him fourteen years to expand his original capital of twenty-five dollars into a sum sufficient for anything at all extensive. With this capital which he had sweated out by working sixteen hours a day father opened the meat market at Clinton, Massachusetts.
This enterprise has been described earlier in this book. It was a large store, for that time and place a pretentious, ambitious store. It developed quickly into a large and profitable retail business doing an annual volume of thirty-five or forty thousand dollars. It yielded him an income which in those days was unusually good for a small town.
But hardly had he attained for his store the momentum he had planned when his mind grasped other opportunities. Being a retail meat dealer involved pretty much killing his own meat animals and selling the cuts a few pounds at a time. But there were growing up, in some of the more thickly populated districts such as that around Boston, wholesale slaughterers and wholesale meat dealers who supplied neighboring retailers fresh dressed meats, thus saving the storekeeper the job of slaughtering.
Father was not unaware of this development, and of the related development which involved a shift of source of meat animals from local raisers to the
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grazing districts of the West. The ratio of cattle population to human population of the New England states had declined far below the point of domestic supply. The cattle to make up this deficiency were coming in from the West, which meant that someone was making a profit in handling them.
Never did a significant trend of any sort within the live-stock or meat industries escape G. F. Swift's alert mind. He saw a chance to become the slaughterer and wholesale supplier to his neighboring retail meat markets. Soon he was doing a considerable business in selling to the trade.
But even this development, with its improvement of a business already to be counted good, did not hold him for long. He had attracted the attention of two of the prominent figures in the New England live-stock and meat businesses. One was D. M. Anthony, a large wholesale slaughterer and meat dealer of Fall River. The other was J. A. Hathaway, a cattle dealer most of whose animals found their way aboard cattle ships bound for England from Boston.
Anthony wanted young Gustavus Swift in with him. So did Hathaway. The upshot was that the Clinton business was turned over to Edwin C. Swift to manage. And two new firms came into existence: Anthony, Swift & Company, of Fall River; Hathaway & Swift, of Brighton.
Shortly thereafter we went to Brighton to live. Father sold his retail market at Clinton to a man named Pope, while my uncle continued to manage
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the Clinton wholesale business. All of the Clinton butchers who were not needed for the wholesale business were now transferred to Anthony, Swift & Company's slaughterhouse at Assonet, just outside Fall River.
"Well enough" was never satisfactory to Gustavus Swift. He had been at Brighton only a year or two, buying cattle for Hathaway to ship and for Anthony to slaughter, when he decided that the advantageous way to buy cattle was near the source of supply. A big stockyards had been established at Albany. So he moved us to Albany, a peg nearer the source of supply.
However good Albany had looked to him as the primary market when he was doing business in eastern Massachusetts, it looked nowhere nearly so fine after he was on the ground. To be sure, cattle were there to be dealt in in great quantity. But to his analytical mind it was not right as a primary market.
He followed the railroad back to Buffalo, where another large stockyards was running. He kept taking short trips there to look over the market and to buy a few cattle. Buffalo was better than Albany, because it was nearer where the cattle came from. It left a good deal to be desired, though. Chicago was yet to be inspected.
The more father thought about Chicago, the more logical it sounded. The cattle on their way from the farms and the ranches and the plains made Chicago their first stop. Then why was not Chicago the place
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where, inevitably, cattle could be purchased to the best advantage? At Chicago must be the greatest selection, with the minimum of commissions and handling charges accrued against the animals.
So in 1875 he came to Chicago. Here he bought cattle for Hathaway to resell, for the Anthonys and Edwin C. Swift to slaughter and sell at wholesale. He also purchased cattle in Chicago on commission for Calvin Leavitt & Son, of Brighton, which sold these cattle to the Brighton butchers.
Wellington Leavitt, who is now and for a great many years has been Swift & Company's head cattle buyer, was the "Son" in the firm of Calvin Leavitt & Son. When Wellington Leavitt was still in business at Brighton with his father, he helped sell cattle sent down by my father from Chicago.
What cattle G. F. Swift purchased at Chicago that summer of 1876 all went east in cattle cars. But he conceived the idea of slaughtering the cattle at Chicago and shipping only the edible parts. Why pay freight on a thousand-pound steer? That steer would dress down to six hundred pounds of beef. Most of the remaining four hundred pounds were thrown away or were even an expense because someone had to be paid to cart them off.
Father tried it experimentally the next winter. He shipped box cars of dressed beef. Some of the cars were heated by stoves to prevent too hard freezing and accompanied by a man to tend the fires. Other cars were shipped with no stoves, completely
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dependent on the weather. All of the cars came through in good condition, with the beef all the better for hanging several days in transit.
From this the step to refrigerator cars was, in time, short. In difficulties it was long and wearying, too long for discussion at this point.
Every step of it, however, involved expanding, involved spending more money, involved a larger volume to make possible the savings or the profits or whatever the objective was for which at the moment he was striving. He had to lay all of the groundwork himself. No one else could obtain the funds he needed. No one else could improvise the thousand and one successful expedients which kept his business going upward.
For he kept the business climbing. Rather he raised it to ever higher points by projecting his creative imagination upward from one stage to the next, then taking the leap and carrying the business with him.
And he held absolutely to his own business. This is a basic reason why he succeeded in building up his business so fast. He went, everyone knows, at a rate considerably faster than a conservative man would have thought either possible or safe. He held absolutely to his own line. He knew what he was doing and why. His decisions were based on a meticulous knowledge of his own affairs and of the whole industry. He built in his own way and didn't wait until the time when he would have the money.
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Each step of expansion was a definite progress along a charted road. Father had no idea at the outset that his business would or could become as large as eventually it did. But he was heading it always in its given direction.
He developed the idea of shipping beef instead of cattle. Right there he unquestionably selected his goal. He determined to head those who purveyed meat to the public.
He set his heart on being the leader, he set his mind to becoming the leader. This would have seemed a preposterous dream to anyone but himself, considering his lack of money and backing. No wonder they called him "that crazy man Swift." But if to others it seemed overreaching, to father it seemed so wholly reasonable that he attained leadership by a route straight as an arrow. He went that route, he reached his goal by strength of will and determination.
All circumstances were with him—particularly the times. If he had not exploited the refrigerator car, someone else no doubt would have succeeded with it in at least a few years. Others had already had some success with refrigerator cars without attaining leadership in the industry. With his early control of large-scale use of the refrigerator car and his remarkable combination of ability and energy, father had an advantage which he crowded to the limit. This limit was the leadership of his field.
How he pushed for sales outlets has already been described. His personal working methods by which
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during the early days he concentrated sixteen or eighteen or occasionally twenty-four hours a day on overwhelming problems which harassed him—these have been told in a previous chapter. The summer of 1875 had seen the thirty-five-year-old Yankee come to Chicago's Yards as a late entrant in a race which seemed already settled. Fifteen years later he had sales branches or dealers in every strategic city of the United States. He was shipping great quantities of meat abroad in refrigerator ships. He had outlets all through the British Isles and in many Continental cities.
No longer was his enterprise confined to beef. He had put the company into mutton, into pork and provisions, into all of the by-product lines which had been an essential outgrowth. Swift refrigerator cars rolled by the thousands over every railroad in the country.
It was toward the close of the '80s that he raised the question of building branch plants still nearer the source of supply than Chicago. Beef cattle were coming principally from the West and Southwest. Why not slaughter them near their points of origin and thus effect savings comparable to the savings which had been attained when beef was dressed at Chicago instead of at Fall River?
At Kansas City, Kansas, was a stockyards of considerable size. Several concerns were operating packing plants there, one or two of them on a reasonably large scale. It was selected as the site of our
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first western branch. In 1888 the Kansas City plant went up.
It provided an excellent market for southwestern cattle. But Kansas City was not the most economical point for stock from the plains of western Nebraska and Colorado and the country farther north. So the Kansas City plant had been operated for only a few months when an identical plant was built at Omaha. The Omaha plant was completed in 1890. The plant at East St. Louis, Illinois, was finished in 1892.
The panic year 1893 gave the building program a set-back. But after a few months to recover his wind, father was once more aggressively at his plans for expansion. His next step was the St. Joseph, Missouri, plant, finished in 1896. Its start and its subsequent history well illustrate his way of tackling a problem when it presented itself to him.
St. Joseph is between Kansas City and Omaha. It is far less important as a railroad center than either of these larger cities.
An earlier effort had established the packing industry at St. Joseph, but while it had managed to struggle along it had not thriven. Kansas City with its large live-stock market offered stockmen a better chance to sell their animals. At Kansas City, buyers were actively competing and huge numbers of animals were dealt in daily.
At St. Joseph, only sixty-five miles away, there was little activity. Grass was literally growing in the yards there. The local business men earnestly
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wished to bring in one of the larger packers with a large plant. And they approached the head of Swift & Company.
He did not want his information or opinions at second hand. He went to St. Joseph, taking with him a few of his lieutenants, and was feted and argued at. But all of that rolled off his mind like so much water.
It was at a banquet given him in St. Joseph that he made one remark from which has echoed many a chuckle. Frogs' legs were part of one course, but the guest of honor refused them.
"You'd better have some, Mr. Swift," urged one of the local hosts. "They're very tender."
"They ought to be," the partisan of beef came back at him with some heat. "All a frog does is sit on the bank and sing!"
Not the entertainments, but the personal investigations of himself and of his men, finally induced his decision. He studied the town, the people, the character of the country. For several days he drove around the surrounding country by himself or accompanied by that one of his own men who could contribute the most expert knowledge of whatever point he was studying.
The character of the soil. The local crops. The number of bushels to the acre. The kind of roads. The kind of farmers. The way the railroad layout would permit shipping stock to St. Joseph. All these points he studied until he probably knew a good deal
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more about them than did any local banker or other man around St. Joseph.
His investigations showed him that, even though it was within sixty-five miles of Kansas City, a good market at St. Joseph would divide the Kansas City and Omaha hog supply. He could buy the St. Joseph stockyards, which would give him an advantage here.
Everybody considered it a wild enterprise, even most of the men most closely associated with him. But the chief had made up his mind. "Folks think we're a little bit crazy," he told the meeting which had gathered to consider the purchase. "But there's lots of live stock down that way. They haven't got a real market there, so they don't get the animals.
"If we set out to make a market there, we'll make a market. We'll buy the stockyards and put up a plant."
It looked like a foolish move. The St. Joseph plant was built over the objections of a large share of his organization. But it paid—paid well. Like many of his most profitable expansions, in advance it seemed to almost everyone else absolutely wrong. He was simply ahead of the rest of us. He grasped all the facts and correlated them into a plan which brought dollars into his stockholders' pockets.
Immediately after the St. Joseph plant came the plant at South St. Paul. Here was a defunct packing plant which he bought because he saw something that others could not see.
People thought hogs could be raised only where
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corn was grown—and the country around St. Paul was not then notable for corn. But father never did much loose thinking. He had a scientist's passion for indisputable facts. He checked up and learned that the farmers there had screenings and other small grains which did not grade up well. Consequently a farmer could more profitably turn this into pork than he could sell it as grain.
He was right. Almost invariably he was right in anything bearing on his affairs. Now South St. Paul kills more hogs than any other Swift plant except Chicago, which has of course remained the largest plant in every respect.
G. F. Swift could see further into the packing industry's future than any man I have ever known. He was very much the expansionist all of the time. He saw cheap live stock and he could not keep his hands off it. He had to expand to get facilities he felt he had to have—and he expanded so intelligently that he reached exactly the point he was aiming for.
Nothing was too big for him if it looked to show a profit. Sioux City stockyards offer an illustration. There had been a top-heavy boom at Sioux City, financed by eastern money. In every direction the plans had been laid along most ambitious lines—and eventually it blew up, of course.
Father wanted the stockyards. The creditors would not sell the stockyards separately. They would sell everything to one buyer or they would sell nothing. So he bought the whole thing, paying a large sum
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of money and taking along with his stockyards a number of enterprises he had no use for.
Here once more nobody would vote with him. Everyone knew he was wrong. But his vision showed him that the stockyards alone were a good buy at the price he had to pay for the whole—even if he had to throw away everything else about the property. As it was, the facilities which were not needed were gradually sold off, the last parcel years after his death. But as he had foreseen, this was an excellent buy. Today the stockyards are worth considerably more than he paid for the whole property. What he and subsequently his estate sold the rest for was clear profit on an already profitable deal.
Always he kept his affairs ahead of his finances and his plans ahead of his affairs. One reason, the principal reason he managed to carry the thing off, was that he knew his business and held to it exclusively. He had no interests outside live stock, packing, and closely related enterprises. A secondary reason why he succeeded where most men must have failed was that he knew the measure of everyone from whom he borrowed money in any considerable amount. The lender acted as the borrower counted on him to do every time.
When father started at Chicago in 1875, those in a position to size him up swore he would fail. When he began to expand, the dire prophecies were quite as confident. But he made every enterprise successful with which he was connected.
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At the outset, he had about thirty thousand dollars from his share of the partnership of Hathaway & Swift. In 1885 his firm was incorporated as Swift & Company, with three hundred thousand dollars capitalization. Within two years he had to recapitalize for three millions, so rapid had been the young company's expansion.
By 1896 the capital stock was fifteen millions. By 1903, the year of his death, the capital was twenty-five millions. And every cent of the capital had come either from earnings or from subscriptions at par by existing stockholders whenever a new issue was made. The company's total sales in 1903 exceeded one hundred and sixty million dollars. Its president had seven thousand employees under him by that time.
For Gustavus Franklin Swift, while a dreamer and a visionary, based his dreams and his visions of expansion very much on the practical facts of life.