Your Young Men Shall See Visions
And down in the Maritime Provinces they are making dreams come true
P. D. L.
EVERY day at the Yarmouth docks you can see them going to Boston, the ambitious young Nova Scotians, to pull the same trick that the Cyrus Eatons and Delancey Harrises have pulled in Yankecland. Few of them are going to do what the two boys from Pugwash and Annapolis Royal did, but the hopes are high and they go because—as they tell if asked — there is no opportunity in Nova Scotia for an ambitious young man. It may be that there are greater opportunities in the United States, but I wish to show in the following sketches that there are also opportunities in the Maritimes if the ambitious young man will go hunting them.
Stairs You Can’t Sit On
IF ANY morning—it would have to be early—you happened to be in the vicinity of Water Street, Halifax, you might see a spare young figure, every action betraying energy to burn, streaking toward the oldest business establishment in the street. If encountering some local crony, he slapped him on the back, asked him how the devil he was, linked arms with him and, dragging him along thus, conversed with him in tones easily heard two blocks away, it would without a doubt be C. W. Stairs, president of William Stairs, Son and Morrow, Limited. Watching and listening you might—if you were a superficial observerbe inclined to murmur: “Wind!” In so doing you would be making a mistake several other superficial observers have made; you would be judging Cyril Stairs by the blow-off of his surplus energy, and not by the smooth-working, highpowered dynamo that actuates that very shrewd young man.
For over a century, since the days when the best rum sold for five shillings a gallon, there has been a Stairs doing business in the hardware line on Water Street. Four generations of canny Scotch traders stretch back to the days of wooden ships and iron men, and each of those four generations has stood for an ideal in business, the thing men call integrity. For the Stairs family has had one other pursuit than the making of money, namely, the development of character, and you can better sum them up in that one word “character” with all its implications, than in any other word.
You build character with discipline. When at the age of sixteen years Cyril was put into the business, he was given no white-collar job, nor any princely salary. He was given a suit of overalls, the only key to the shop, and told to open it for the other employees at seven o’clock every morning. For remuneration he was given the princely sum of $48 a year! Four years later he was only getting $400 a year—and was still in overalls.
Did he muse on the situation as some might have: “Well, after all, they’ve got to take me into the business some day, so I’ll just mark time at this apprenticeship ” The dynamo in Cyril prevented any such easy philosophy. His restless eager mind reached out for the possibilities that lay at hand; he began to see new and better ways of arranging the internal economy of the business; department after department snapped out of the old rut—and the older employees, thinking back two generations, began to say: “A chip of the old block!” With the certainty of fate the opportunity came. Illness and death played havoc with the management of the business and, though not the only Stairs available, he found himself at the age of twenty-one in virtual control of the active management, apart from the financial end. Quite a leap for a conservative business family to take, but a well justified one as events proved.
The dynamo now found itself hitched to a real load, and there followed those booming late-war years in which William Stairs, Son and Morrow, Limited, more than doubled its business and greatly enlarged its plant. True enough, those were years in which anyone could do business prosperously, but don’t imagine for a moment that Cyril sat still and let the plums drop. On the contrary, he shook the tree for all it was worth.
Here’s an instance. When the disaster of 1917 hit Halifax, Colonel Bob Low was put in charge of reconstruction. Within a few days of taking on the job the Colonel found himself in need of certain material. The hour at which he found himself in this predicament was 6 a.m., and the matter was highly urgent. Where could he do business at that hour? He walked into Water Street and found one establishment open, and one lone employee in that establishment — Cyril Stairs. If you happen to be a bit of a live wire yourself you will realize the impression this must have made on Colonel Bob Low, and just where he was likely to turn when he wanted to do business next time. Don’t let me mislead you now: Cyril Stairs was not going to work every day in those stirring times at 6 a.m. That particular morning he had got up to see one of his family off on the train, and faced with the alternative of returning for another hour between the blankets or going down and opening the business, he chose the latter. But isn’t his choice of alternatives a straw in the wind?
A Dynamo—Plus Brains
SO IT went. And then came 1921, that year to which all Canadian business men look back with a shudder. William Stairs, Son and Morrow, Limited, were hit as badly as any. Year after year deficit followed deficit as the Maritime provinces rolled in the doldrums. Faced with the bare cupboard at home Cyril explored other cupboards. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. had started their big development on the Humber in Newfoundland. He went down there with one of his travellers, stayed a week, nearly killed the traveller, dragging him over the development, and got in orders less than the trip actually cost him. Did he throw Newfoundland up as a bad job? Not so. When he got back to Halifax he called his department heads together.
“Here are the orders I got in Newfoundland,” he told them. “Get ’em off and get ’em off quick. If any further orders come in from these birds step on ’em ! There’s only one way to beat Montreal—give better service. Snap to it!”
Before the Humber development was completed William Stairs, Son and Morrow, Limited, did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business with the various contractors working on it.
But in spite of all this the deficits kept up and Cyril realized that the only thing that would stem the tide of high overhead and business depression was a complete reorganization of the firm. Late in 1924 he put a scheme for reorganization before the directors. It was turned down. In the next few months he brought forward several variations of this scheme—all turned down. Faced with this impasse, he reached the decision—and you would have to have the Stairs’ pride in that old and honorable establishment on Water Street to know what it cost him to reach it—that the business would have to get along without him. He went up to Montreal for a week, as he put it himself, to “smoke a pipe on it.” There he met a prominent Upper Canadian business man, and in the course of conversation unburdened his problem.
“My dear boy,” said the P.B.M.,
“why don’t you buy William Stairs, Son and Morrow, Limited?”
Now it is characteristic of Cyril Stairs that he can make a lightning decision. Until that moment he had never considered buying the business from the Stairs family, for the very good reason that he had no money of his own with which to do so; but suddenly that day in the Ritz rotunda he made up his mind—and took the next train home.
To make a long story short he bought the business. The banks were only too willing to take a chance. What happened? In 1926, the year he took it over, there was still a deficit, but the smallest since the slump. In 1927 a nice little profit. In 1928 a real profit—and 1929 looks the best yet. Et comment?
Brains, plus the dynamo!
For instance. Calling one day on the Honorable Percy Black who, among other things is president of the Nova Scotia Clay Works, he overheard a telephone conversation whose subject was the unsatisfactory way in which “Bluenose” bricks were selling. The moment the receiver clicked down, friend Cyril remarked in his terse way:
“I’ll sell your bricks!”
Now Cyril knew nothing about bricks, had never handled such a commodity before, but looking over some literature on the subject a few days later he discovered that the convention of the Common Brick Manufacturers of America was shortly to be held at Washington, D.C. He attended the convention, taking with him the managers of the brickworks at Pugwash and Elmsdale, who had never studied the brick problem out of Nova Scotia. The result? Bluenose Brick is a better brick than ever, and is being manufactured by improved and more economical methods.
Today, Cyril is vice-president of the company, whose works are humming as they never hummed before.
He is also a director of the new Nova Scotia Cold Storage Terminals, Limited, and Trinidad Electric. Nine o’clock in the morning you’ll find him on the job— nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night. And when he isn’t there he’s scouring the country, searching restlessly for new openings, picking up business wherever up it is lying loose, and prying it loose where it isn’t. Dynamo!
A Bluenose Buccaneer
TF YOU go to the Halifax North West Arm any summer day you will see moored off Boulderwood a yacht named the Buccaneer. She belongs to Ralph P. Bell—and her name is highly symbolic. For Ralph is of that company of lusty adventurers whose course lies free, wide and handsome, and who, in the face of lowering cloud and threatening storm, nonchalantly hoist their sail and head for the open sea, while less hardy spirits get out an extra anchor to windward.
Such a name is typical of the man, who at twenty-one left home with seventy-five dollars in his pocket, a young wife, and a determination to wrest his fortune from an indifferent world.
Twenty years later one of the most valuable corner properties of down-town Halifax, the Queen Building, a handsome cut-stone structure diagonally opposite the historic Province House, is up for sale. Neglected by its English owners, with a dilapidated, out-of-date interior, it comes under the auctioneer’s hammer. No bids! Coming from the abortive auction the agent ran into Ralph Bell in his car on the way to Yarmouth. Five minutes’ chat—and Ralph bought the building. Complete renovation followed, and today you’ll find its new owner occupying a suite of offices in the heart of financial Halifax from which he directs the affairs of six distinct, widely different concerns.
But let us return to the young adventurer of twenty years ago. After three highly successful years in the West with the Canadian Fairbanks Company, Limited, a call came from Halifax. His father, A. M. Bell, head of the well-known eastern hardware firm, was in failing health, and Ralph was wanted in the business. He came, and in a subsequent reorganization of the company became its secretary. Conceiving a plan which he believed would put his firm in the front rank of the Maritime hardware trade, he found his associates sceptical of its results. With Ralph it was always a case of action; he would either buy or sell, but not sit tight. Faced with this alternative his associates elected to buy him out—Ralph flipped a coin to settle the final terms of the agreement and turned his back on hardware.
Those were days when it looked as if Halifax might be in for something big; the new ocean terminals were in the air—thirty millions of dollars coming in to make an ocean port! Robert L. Borden, a Halifax lawyer, Premier of Canada! Haligonians began to see their city the winter port of Canada. Ralph’s imagination took fire. The possibilities for the real estate development of the old Rosebank property, then a vacant pasture in the west end of the city, took hold of him—and his ideas were big ones. He bought the property, set to work, and was well on the way to success when the war broke out— and real estate crashed. His winged hope became a load to carry, and although he managed to bear it and weather the storm, the venture was a loss. To Halifax, however, he gave the foundation of a residential “city beautiful,” which although not realized at the time, will ultimately, through his vision and the building restrictions established, redound to the permanent benefit of the city. “You are forty years ahead of your time,” said one of the foremost town planners of America.
By a queer twist of fate this experience in construction and development was destined to be used immediately in a unique way. On a cloudless morning, December 6, 1917, the old garrison city of Halifax was visited by the most colossal disaster which had overtaken any city outside the fighting zone during the War: 2,000 killed, 18,000 hospital cases, and virtually half the city homeless. Work to be done and quickly—a secretary needed by the temporary Voluntary Relief Committee. There you find Ralph Bell just where you would expect—with his secretary and typewriter ready to go to work. Almost overnight he became the co-ordinating link between the various committees and central executive, and when the Government Commission was appointed he was asked to remain until the more pressing part of the work was completed. For the next thirteen months he worked early and late, sometimes over eighteen hours a day until order was brought out of chaos and a new city out of the ruin. Nothing more to do, then, but sit in an office and keep records—Ralph took a holiday.
His Venture in Pulp and Paper
TpATE led him fishing on the Tusket River. There he fell in with an interesting old lumberman, who believed the river could be made the site of a great development. Ralph listened, and as the man talked he saw a milliondollar pulpwood industry take shape. It is there today, and Ralph Bell is its manager.
You have probably heard of the recent big pulp and paper development on the Mersey River. Write across the face of it: “This, too, is Ralph Bell.” Long before the people or press of Nova Scotia began agitating for the home manufacture of pulpwood he initiated this proposition. The time, thought, and energy he put into that development, his ingenuity and determination in overcoming the innumerable obstacles that dogged his steps, his high courage in the face of rebuff after rebuff, make up an epic too long to tell here, but cne which should some day be told as an inspiration to the youth of Nova Scotia. And speaking of inspiration, it should also be told how he “played the game” when the development went on without him, not only congratulating his former associates who had concluded the agreement which left him out, but offering to place at their disposal any knowledge he had gained which might help this industry so important for Nova Scotia.
The southwestern part of the province had been the focal point in his paper-mill research, which had, certainly, been a generous full-time job for one man without any partners or “local group” support. But Ralph had, at the same time, been delving into the possibilities of the fishing industry in the same region. In 1926, the ownermanager of one of the most substantial fishcuring businesses in the district died, leaving the concern for sale. One morning, a broker friend walked into Ralph’s office and briefly outlined the business and its possible future. Action ! Ralph became owner of the Lockeport Company, Limited, which is already feeling the impetus of his dynamic energy and initiative. Watch its development.
Not the least interesting chapter is still to be told. In 1923, Frank J. D. Barnjum, heavily interested in a pulp mill in Nova Scotia, commenced an agitation for an embargo on the export of pulpwood. Powerful interests supported him, and in 1924 a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the question. In spite of the commission’s recommendation against restrictive measures, the agitators continued and Ralph, who had already taken sides against Mr. Barnjum in a press controversy on the subject, realized that the only way to meet the situation was to organize the pulpwood dealers of Canada. He, therefore, invited a dozen of the most influential to meet him in Montreal. Only three came—but out of that meeting grew the Canadian Pulpwood Association, which today has 15,000 members, and of which Ralph Bell is vice-president and manager.
In addition, he won over an antagonistic press. Having invited newspaper editors from all over the Dominion to dine with him in Montreal, he challenged Mr. Barnjum to a debate in their presence. But Mr. Barnjum didn’t come. He, therefore, met the editors alone. Standing up before them he gave them his facts, inviting them to question him on any point. The result was that he convinced them of the truth of his contentions and scored over Mr. Barnjum, who declined to face the test.
But what about the fortune Ralph Bell set out to make those twenty years ago. Perhaps it’s still around the corner. But he’s a young man yet, and ripening judgment is, year by year, implementing his unflagging energy by giving it more effective point. His lovely home, “Boulderwood,” on the shores of the North West Arm is a testimony to his constructive ability not only of the useful, but of the beautiful. Constructive ability—there you have the key to the man. “I’d rather be a promoter, responsible for some worth-while development in my native province than anything else I know of,” he once said to a friend. “And why people so often use that term in a sneering and derogatory sense, I can’t for the life of me understand. To me a promoter is the dynamic link you’ve got to have if natural possibilities are to be converted into jobs, homes, and all that means a vigorous, prosperous population.”
Yes, that’s the key. And I venture the prophecy that it will find other doors yet, down in that province by the sea.
Just a Country Lad
■XTOW it might well be argued here that these men, Stairs and Bell, were the sons of prominent fathers and were, therefore, because of that fact, favored in their careers. Let me refer you to Alfred T. O’Leary.
Alfred was born in the little village of Port Dufferin, and his father was a seacaptain. Just a country boy. On his initial visit to Halifax he wandered up into the town to see for the first time the bright lights of a big city, went into a store to buy some bananas, stepped out to the sidewalk again and saw charging down the hill toward him a great clanging behemoth. It was only a tramcar; but unused to such terrors as stalk the city streets by night, Alfred turned on his heel and did not stop running until he was safely in his cabin on board the old Wilfred C., the little coasting steamer in which he had journeyed up from Port Dufferin.
Not a very promising first encounter with a city, but a few years later Alfred came back to conquer. At the age of eighteen, and with the bee in his bonnet to study law, he took on a summer job with M. R. Morrow, then general agent in Halifax for the Dominion Coal Company, Limited. In the autumn he was to enter the Dalhousie Law School. But in the autumn his father died, and Alfred, being one of the oldest of a family of ten, had to give up dreams of law in the face of pressing circumstances.
Mr. Morrow had been interested in Alfred since the days when as a barefoot boy the latter had ridden, during summer holidays, the coal teams plying between Port Dufferin and the old Dufferin Gold Mines. The interest remained, now that Alfred came to work for him in Halifax. Mr. Morrow saw that his protégé had ability, and gave him opportunity for the exercise of that ability. When Alfred left his employ he was in charge of the discharging and bunkering operations of the firm. He then went to S. Cunard & Company, to take over the coal department of that company, and was virtually Norwood Duff us’ right-hand man. When, on Mr. Duffus’ retirement from the firm, it was reorganized, he became managingdirector.
Now all this time Alfred had not been content merely to do his job from day to day. When a steamer came into Halifax requiring bunker coal he went aboard her in the interests of his company to interview the captain. Because of his own inherited seagoing traditions he made firm friends with skipper after skipper. For he was not only interested in selling coal to ships, but in ships and the men who went down to the sea in them. He thus developed an enormous seagoing acquaintanceship—call it a clientele if you will. But more than that, he had been studying coal and coal markets and had come to the conclusion that owing to changed conditions in the coal industry, the overseas market for Nova Scotia coal was going to increase enormously in the next few years. Unable, however, to put into action the plans he had made to meet these new conditions, because his associates did not see eye to eye with him, he decided to cut himself loose from them.
He had been twelve years in the coal business, mounting steadily from the humblest job to the very highest. He found himself now without a job, and with practically no capital. But he had two assets—that large sea-going acquaintanceship, and a belief in, and a shrewd knowledge of, coal. How could he utilize these assets without financial backing? He took a look around. There were in the Maritime provinces at that time a number of small coal-mining companies anxious to extend their markets. It was a simple matter to get options on a considerable proportion of their outputs. But markets were another problem. Owing to a previous agreement with his late business associates, he was debarred for two years from selling coal in the retail market. He, therefore, proceeded to back his hunch that Nova Scotia coal could be sold abroad, went searching for such markets—found them —began shipping coal to England, Belgium, Holland, and Italy. His hunch became a reality. Prices started to soar in Europe. Coal sold for as high as sixty dollars a ton in Italy in those days—he was selling coal there then. His business grew by leaps and bounds. And all the time, his seagoing friends were coming into Halifax for bunker coal and remembered Alfred O’Leary, who was not only a coal merchant, but a son and lover of the sea.
Coal and Ships
"DRESENTLY his ship’s bunkering ■Jbusiness rose to such a volume that he found himself handicapped for proper loading facilities. Rather than curtail this part of his activities, he went searching into the possibilities. A large, modern, bunkering outfit was lying idle on the Halifax waterfront. He leased it—and thenceforth was able to coal a ship to the size of the Olympic.
The business grew and grew. In 1923, Canada began to import Welsh anthracite coal. Alfred began to import it—and sell it. You remember that Cyril Stairs, when he took over the sales of Bluenose bricks, first of all made himself thoroughly acquainted with the brick industry. Alfred did the same with anthracite coal. He knew all about Nova Scotia coal, but to learn of anthracite he had to go where it was mined—for there are as many varieties of anthracite as there are of apples. He spent several weeks in Wales going over the ground, and as a result learned where to buy the best coal at the best price.
But the sea was in Alfred’s blood. His father was a sea-captain; so were four of his uncles. The sea had always called him, and to it he returned again. But his first venture was not a success. A sailing vessel chartered out of Newfoundland with a load of fish was lost at sea. A small steamer proved a failure. But the sea called insistently. It’s in the air down here anyway. Nova Scotia was once a great shipping province, and if the wooden ships are gone the iron men have left something of their spirit behind.
In 1927, Alfred, in association with F. K. Warren, purchased a small British steamer. The sugar refineries of the Maritime provinces had been shipping sugar to the Canadian west via the St. Lawrence and the great lakes, but mostly in chartered steamers unsuitable for the trade. The first steamer was bought primarily to carry Maritime refined sugar to the West, to bring grain back to Montreal and general cargo from Montreal to the Maritimes. She was a financial success, and her owners next year purchased a larger boat of the same type. Out of this has grown the recently organized Interprovincial Steamship Lines, Limited, operating a fleet of freighters running regularly between the Maritime provinces and the great lake ports, of which company Alfred is vice-president.
“Coal is coal,” Alfred will tell you, “but shipping is the most fascinating game in the world !”
Today the country boy who ran away from a tramcar twenty odd years ago owns and controls his important coal business, and like the foregoing members of this trio, has taken on new worlds to conquer. He has proved beyond all cavil that the country boy of the Maritimes can make good in the Maritimes as well as the city boy can. And he will tell you himself that he’d sooner be here than in any other part of Canada—or the United States.