How the Englishman Does Business

James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post February 1 1908

How the Englishman Does Business

James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post February 1 1908

How the Englishman Does Business

James H. Collins in Saturday Evening Post

WHY does the American in London look with pity and impatience upon the business methods of his British cousin?

Because he can’t help it. Because, no matter where he turns, from costering to finance, he sees things being done with a sedateness, a reverence for tradition and a disregard for economy in labor or detail that make him desire to reform the whole British commercial fabric at once. Everywhere the pallid “dark” upon his high stool. Everywhere the pewter inkpot. The American’s letter of credit is on a great international banking house. He finds its main countingroom spread over half a block. Not a typewriter in the place. Not a modern office appliance. On the shelf where he signs his draft are a steel pen and goose-quill, side by side. This bank has thirty branches in London. But it requires two days to furnish a bit of New York exchange.

He wishes to telephone, and is shown to' an instrument with a crank and ear-piece unlike anything he has ever seen. It resembles an American pencil-sharpener—and he learns that it often works like one. This morning he found the London papers full of wonder at American civilization because it could permit Philadelphia telephone interests to abolish the word “please” in their service, with a gross saving of 900,000 “pleases” daily. But London Central blackguards him for saying “fifty-nine hundred Battersea,” when he should have said “five11 ine-double-aught.”

The American feels sorry for his English cousin, and would be out of patience with him were the latter not such a kindly fellow. And yet, the Englishman isn’t at all wrong. He is

merely conducting English business on English lines, whereas the American has been making a peck of trouble for himself every day by trying to do business in London as he would do it in New York or Chicago.

The bank referred to clears through an institution that uses two hundred American adding machines. The London agent for these contrivances would tell him that this is a larger number than can be found in any single American business house. Why? Because English business is big—very big. And quiet—exasperat ingly quiet.


He shouldn’t have telephoned. Wait until the year 1911, when the British post office has rebuilt the lines everywhere with American apparatus. Until then, use the post office telegraph—sixpence from London - ’way up to Hoy, in the far Orkney Islands. Or the mails. He may write to a man in Liverpool after breakfast and have a reply the same day by bedtime—depending on the man. This is, why a Londoner, however patient at his bank, will not forgive neglect of a business letter, nor an appointment.

All British business is done by appointment. Where one is to call, and whom one is to receive, are laid out a week ahead in his diary—so much time allotted to each engagement. You are on hand to the minute, talk ten minutes, and give place to the next caller.

As a result of this system, the Londoner comes down later and goes home earlier than business, men in any American city, perhaps, except

New York, where the appointment system has also been long in use.

The Englishman transacts business very deliberately.

One of the American concerns manufacturing card index and office appliances has a growing business in London, with a large showroom. At its home office, in Boston, there is also a showroom, and a large trade is done with business men who come in, look over stock and order on sight.

“By Jove!” says the American purchaser, “just the thing I need. Get it around to my office this afternoon.”

In London the company also sells to Englishmen, who grow enthusiastic upon seeing labor-saving devices. But the enthusiasm and the sale are further apart. There is not the slightest chance of bringing them together. After the Englishman has warmed up to a new appliance he chills again and goes away to think it over. This concern lost many sales until it learned how to handle them by the simple expedient of sending a salesman around to Englishmen about three days after to take the order. The more enthusiastic he gets, the longer he needs to think it over.

An Englishman is mortally afraid of the quality that he calls “American hustle.” His ideas on this subject are queer. He thinks it means working at high pressure, and that it reaches its highest development in the American who runs for a car. He comes home with stories of American business men who ignore their appointments, rush about the streets looking for one another, and talk shop between acts at the play. If he hasn’t been to America, his conception of American hustle is probably embodied in the “Do it now” sign. He never tires of telling about the hustling American chap who hung “Do it now” signs all about the bally old shop, such a blessed lot of them you never saw, and then put his feet up on his desk, ’pon me word, and did nothing! This type of Englishman cannot rid himself of the belief that the American regards “Do it now” as a prime-mover. Whereas with us

it is rather an effect than a cause—an 68

axiom spread around originally, perhaps, by some big American execur tive who was in the habit of doing it yesterday, to guide subordinates who were likely not to get it done until tomorrow.


The Englishman is importing our commercial axioms now—and mighty humorous stuff they become on the Atlantic voyage. Our terse philosophy on the delights of getting busy, the value of persistence, the infallibility of success, are always qualified by the British editor who prints them. He carefully removes all the zip! He counsels the business youth of England to “Do it now,” and at the same time reminds him that “Happy the man whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound.”

Other American methods and appliances are being imported, too. But very slowly. In five or ten years England may be a country of opportunity. The young generation of Englishmen has a new aggressiveness. The Scotchman presses in from the north as never before. A typical Scotch face encountered in London affairs has the thinness, keenness and earnestness of the entering wedge. It belongs to an individual who delights in the Yankee, because the latter wijl sit and talk business with him unashamed past midnight—something that few Englishmen will do.

“I’ve lived with him five days now,” said a Scot, speaking of his English roommate on a steamer, “and a fine young chap—a rare talker. But I don’t know yet what his line may be.”

There was a stone quarry in the West of England th§t had come down several generations in the same family. The founder had employed about one hundred men. His son employed no more, nor his grandson. But two great-grandsons came from the universities three years ago and took charge. To-day that quarry employs a thousand men. It embodies the new spirit.

The American, knowing not what

lies below the surface, would accelerate matters with a few kicks and pushes. After a week in London he finds the Briton’s problem easy, and the Briton himself plain as print. When he has lived there five years, however, he not only finds matters not so simple, but has been known to outdo the Englishman himself in conservatism. It is said, for instance, that the manager for an American insurance company, in London that long, now carefully writes his reply in pencil on the back of each letter, and sends it to a clerk to be copied in longhand.

A newly-arrived American put some legal matters in the hands of one of the ablest corporation attorneys—a famous “city man.” For weeks he had occasion to visit the latter’s chambers, climbing several dark flights of stairs in a dark alley. A worn shred of carpet on the floor. A huge table strewn with valuable documents, gathering dust and soot. More stored in tin boxes, with never a thought of fire. A maze of partitions, high desks, high stools, and a dozen of those London “darks” who seem to be cheaper than any labor-saving contrivance.

“See here,” protested the American one day, “a man of your ability knows better than this. Throw out that old table, clean up, buy a civilized rug and some modern files, and store those papers where they’ll at least be kept tidy.”

The attorney laughed.

“My dear fellow, if I did that every client would leave me to-morrow. Why, they’d fawncy I’d gone into some shady bit of stock-jobbing! Only the Jews do such things.”


A story is told of an attorney who, more rash, actually installed a typewriter. His first letter to a client brought an alarming reply : “My

dear sir, if you cannot take time to write me personally when I communicate with you I shall have to be engaging another solicitor. I cannot

permit every clerk in your chambers to know my affairs.”

The Bankers’ Clearing House, in London, deals with bankers. Hence, it may safely install computing machines. The banks, however, deal with a clientele very different from the pushing business men who make up the mass of American depositors. Instead, their depositors are largely an elder generation. They look to banks to safeguard investments and collect dividends. And they insist that the goose-quill be found beside the modern steel pen. The latter is concession enough to a thoughtless generation without such abominations as typewriters.

Only in a few of the older cities of our own Atlantic coast will an American be able to realize how a business house handed down through three generations can be hampered in policy and operation by its very past. For our business is all new. Nine out of every ten houses in the United Kingdom are hampered by generations now dead and gone.

In the Scotch distilling trade, for instance, there has been remarkable aggression the past ten years, bcotchand-soda has been introduced an over the world. One or two names in this trade are widely known—outside of Scotland.

“These are promoters,” explained a distiller in the North country—a young man who is now conducting, as aggressively as he can, a business founded by his grandfather. “They started with nothing—not even hampered by a distillery. The gentleman who made the largest success once worked here for my father. Now we are tied up all over the kingdom by trade agreements, discounts, divisions of territory, all arranged by the Pater or his Pater. Regular heirlooms, you know. We should like to advertise our product in American fashion. But we don’t sell direct anywhere, and it would be making money to put into other people’s pockets. Why, we sell at third hand in some places. One of these promoters who developed foreign trade by advertising actually gets goods made here in our plant.

But we don’t sell it to him. He buys it of a man who buys it of another man who comes to us.”

Occasionally a new generation comes and cuts such a Gordian knot of trade alliances. More often, however, the first or second generation has made so much money that the third abandons trade and the business is sold or wound up.

It has been said that the Englishman works that he may play, while the American plays that he may work. The epigram holds much truth.

While at his shop the Englishman transacts nothing but business, by appointment. He wants to be finished. The Londoner is a clock-watcher, and hates the thought of Monday morning. His heart is in his country estate and his family. For this reason he sharply condenses his transactions, and omits hundreds of details that the American works out lovingly. Thus, it is entirely true, as Americans of some experience in London assure new arrivals—and as the latter are seldom willing to believe—that a man may get through several times as much business during a year in the British metropolis as in New York, and have twice or thrice as much leisure.


There is little social life in British business, and this the American misses most of all. No business clubs where every one in wool, hardware, chemicals or publishing lunches at midday, meets every one else in that trade, and gets all the gossip. The Briton dines at his regular club, where business is strictly tabooed. Personality plays a smaller part in business—where an American house often permits department managers to sign their names in correspondence, the English business -letter is usually signed by the “Manager for the Company.” Our countless commercial organizations, with their great dinners and notable speakers, are just beginning to be understood in England. With us, of course, business is the one general interest. Over there it must give place to half

a dozen other general interests, social, artistic, political, and likewise compete with a hundred little hobbies. So a man is expected to leave his shop in the city.

An excellent English couple, staying at a London hotel, formed an acquaintance with an American. The last thing the American did in parting was to hand to Mrs. John Bull his business card instead of the ordinary visiting-card. This breach of usage puzzled her for several days. The matter was not cleared up until another American explained that his business card was undoubtedly the only sort our compatriot possessed.

The Englishman condenses his business, gives it the cut direct, and some times turns and vilifies it roundly. And still he is bound up with details to a much greater degree than we are, because he will not delegate authority. Ask him to decide to-day, and he smiles : “Ah, yes, you are a

newly-arrived American !” With us, initiative is cultivated. Our executive is always looking for a man who can do his own work. Our office boy is encouraged to make suggestions. But, in England, initiative is still generally regarded as impertinence, and if the office boy came down with a suggestion for improving methods he would not only be discharged, but his employer might consider it a work of public service to keep that boy out of other houses and force him to emigrate to Canada. Under such condF tions it is buj: natural that subordinates should be intent chiefly on sitting squarely upon three-legged stools and keeping their thoughts to themselves.

An Englishman adnpres the initiative in American business. Nothing so transforms him as a visit to this country. He goes back with a complaint that his own understrappers lack this vital spark. As a matter of fact, however, they respond very readily to coaching under an American manager. Initiative is not lacking, but the art of cultivating it and trusting it with burdens is. -_ An English employer hires a boy because he can show who his greatgrandfather was. He promotes him

steadily by a seniority system until the top of a department is reached. He puts him in charge of this, and watches him from day to day, and interferes in every detail. The first year that department fails to pay out goes its head.

An American hires a boy because he has a clean spark in his eye, puts him through torsion, compression and breaking-strain tests, gives him full charge of a department, all the weight of his credit, and lets him alone up to the annual report of net earnings. There may be a falling off as compared with'last year. Well, he isn’t going to throw away all that experience. So they go into the matter together, find out where the money was lost, and next year concentrate energy on the weak point.

An American with a growing business in New York found it necessary to establish a London branch. The latter grew. He had to visit it once every year. It grew more, and he went yearly. It grew still more, and eventually he was spending weeks on the ocean back and forth.

Every time he got back to his New York business he found that some subordinate had pried a bit of it loose, taken it away and made it the basis of a business for himself. In the end this happened so many times that the New York house had to be wound up and attention concentrated on the London one. In London, however, the business remained much as he left it, neither growing nor decreasing while he was away, and with all the subordinates in their same old places each time he returned. More than three years passed before one of the latter had the hardihood to chip off a tiny corner of the London establishment and set up independently, and, when the matter was looked into, it was found that the Englishman who did this had had experience in America.

An Englishman seems to consider that his business has reached the ideal stage when it is efficient but wholly impersonal. He wouldn’t wish to have it intrude on others. Conse-

quently he misses some of the finest phases of our business atmosphere.

There is a certain house in New York that has an internal telephone exchange with perhaps twenty-five branch instruments. Each of these communicates with somebody in authority in that house. Each of these somebodies has relations with twentyfive, fifty or a hundred customers, to say nothing of relatives and friends. Altogether there must be more than 2,000 persons in the city who are likely to call that house up at any moment. The girl who sits at that telephone exchange has perhaps never seen twenty of these 2,000 persons. But she knows every one of them by voice, and also knows whom he usually asks for, and probably whether his relation with that person is a commercial or a friendly one. If Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan had ever called up a person in that establishment as many as six times, she might not know that he was the Mr. Morgan. But she would classify him as a Mr. Morgan, and if the financier went around the world .in his yacht and was gone two years, and suddenly popped into New York again and called up that concern, this j^oung lady would greet him immediately and unhesitatingly with :


“Oh, this is Mr. Morgan, isn’t it? And you want to talk with Mr. Ben B. ? I’ll switch you right on his wire.”

It took five years to train this girl. But she was worth it, tor an American never grows too great or too busy to be susceptible to such consideration. She is an asset in that business.

An Englishman demands similar attention in personal service. He expects, when he turns over in bed and sighs in the morning, that the maid in the hotel corridor will set down his jug of shaving-water outside the door. But he hasn’t learned to refine his business in the same way. If a telephone girl said to him : “Ho, yus —you’re Mister Morgan,” he would straightway infer that she had wormed out a lot of his secret discounts.

It is the same with the typewriter* The London typist is a stolid, inefficient creature compared with the keen American girls who serve busy American executives, and are not only confidential secretaries, guardians of the chief’s secrets and his privacy, but literally snatch away from him details that he might not perceive can be carried out by subordinates. They handle not only his correspondence, but also manage his appointments, make his luncheon engagements, and buy his railway tickets. Under a relation that would hardly be comprehended in England, they ofttimes keep up for him at the office a complete wardrobe, and with three words of direction will take the detail of letting his wife know he is bringing some one home to dinner, ’phoning the chauffeur to be at the door at five-thirty, and blowing him up a bit for being late the night before.

The English typist, good soul, is chiefly concerned with punctuation and capitalization, and dares be concerned with little else. She is quite up to her opportunities. One sharp shock comes to the American in England when he sees an order given her, accompanied by an imperious snap of the fingers. It is clear that this is done only by some Englishmen. But a Yankee’s fists close in spite of himself when he runs up against this habit the first time. And he never grows so accustomed to it that he ceases to speculate upon what might happen to anybody who did that to an office-boy at home.


In contrast, however, this is the place to speak of the English employer’s loyalty to his employes, and also to point out the distinction that the word “employe” is seldom used, but that a man’s subordinates in business are called “servants.” From the greatest railways to the humblest private business there is a disposition to give places to as many subordinates as possible, and a truly paternal system of promotions by seniority, of keeping a man or woman as long as it is possible, for them to work, and

then pensioning them off. It obtains as universally through commercial affairs as in English governmental service. One characteristic of the typical English business house is that it will be overmanned.

Something else the American misses after a time. Not immediately, perhaps. But one morning the question suddenly flashes upon him :

“Where is the business woman?”

And echo answers: “Yep, that’s

so—where !”

Occasionally the British magazine, when it wants a really up-to-date feature with a streak of yellow in it, prints the portraits of the half-dozen peeresses who have embarked in trade. There is Lady Auckland with a furniture shop, and the Countess of Essex with a laundry (an American girl, to begin with), the Countess of Limerick, who has gone into trade for philanthropic purposes, and so forth. In his heart the London editor probably considers this symposium altogether devilish. But the typical American business woman, with her grasp of detail, her independence, her clean, frank glance into one’s eyes, and her clean, direct way of analyzing a proposition in a moment and pointing out its weaknesses—she will not be found to any extent in London. In .fact, when one comes to think of it, the only person standing for her at all was Miss Sally Brass, in the Old Curiosity Shop. And she came to a horrible end.

Will the Englishman ever be, in business, like us? In some respects he is becoming so, and, rather strangely, his government seems to lead in American notions. It was predicted that the staid Foreign Office would have trouble when modern files and real live typists were added in Downing Street. No woman could keep a secret ! What would become of diplomacy? But the reform h?^ been a success. Scotland Yard actually woke up not long ago and began giving photographs of criminals and their handwriting to the press.

There is the question, too, of whether we are not becoming somewhat like the Englishman. Our big man’s

art collection, and our little men’s golf clubs seem to show that this new trade in business standards is to have an import as well as an export side.

But in business it is safe to say that the two nations will never very closely resemble each other. There are racial differences and social differences. Most of all, there is the climatic difference.

The American never grows accustomed jto London’s climate. Neither does the Londoner. It is a remarkably healthy climate, for one thing, and also markedly depressing. There are no wide variations of temperature. Nor are there the brisk breezes of the United States, which in New York City average nine miles an hour, putting nip into the air. London’s rainfall is heavy, and also its percentage of humidity even in clear weather. The rarity of disastrous fires there is sometimes cited by American editors as a result of English care and construction. But the London fireman gives other reasons:

“No high winds, sir,” he says, “and a smaller ignition risk on account of the humidity—things do pot ignite so easily nor burn so freely.”

.When the thermometer drops in New York the effect is usually invigorating. When it drops in London a damp cold penetrates the bones. There .is far less sunshine than we are accustomed to, and when a real London fog comes down from nor’east

(not the white fog of the tourist season, but the regular “black un,” or what Mr. Guppy called a “London particular”) There is not much optimism going. The Londoner never comprehends the American until he comes to New York and lives in a brighter, brisker climate. At the end of a week he will run after street cars he doesn’t want at all, and beat the American hustler at it, and doesn’t need a “Do it now” sign either.

The Englishman is coming out of a drab generation that is still reflected in the scoldings of Ruskin, those gloomy novels of Gissing, like a long family quarrel, and in many other places. He fell behind in free educa-^ tion, in technical training, in applied science. He would be a genuine decadent to-day were it not for his magnificent stamina. But he is catching up, and no criticism of his business methods must be read without keeping in mind his vast world trade, and the very long time that he has been doing business at the same old stand.

He is coming out of the shadow of the chimney-pot hat. A curious alteration is going on inside of him, commercially. He is sloughing off a lot of outworn social notions that hamper him in business. Almost any of these days now he may be thoroughly awake. And when he is, the American in London, far from wanting to reform him, may heartily wish that he could be put back to sleep again.