H. S. Holt: An Aggressive Financier
W. A. Craick
Though his influence in financial and industrial affairs extends to all parts of the Dominion, H. S. Holt, of Montreal, is said to be the least known of all the millionaires of the metropolis. But he is easily one of the most interesting and, indeed, successful. The personality of the man, the outstanding features of his remarkable career, and the success which his business genius has brought to the numerous interests which he dominates —all these combine in affording an abundance of material for this racy sketch of one of Canada’s foremost financiers and men of affairs.
UP ON THE SECOND FLOOR of the big Power Building on Craig Street, Montreal, and at one end of an expansive board room, which occupies an entire corner of the flat, there sits at a desk a grave and dignified personage, who rises slowly on your entrance and greets you with a peculiarly solemn smile. He is Herbert Samuel Holt, the man behind Montreal Power, the head of the Royal Bank, president of this and that corporation, director of Canadian Pacific and a score of other companies, one of Canada’s foremost financiers and men of affairs. To-day, with the proximate fusion of three gigantic power companies in sight, with a third important bank merger safely accomplished, and with all the enterprises in which he is interested driving forward on the crest of a wave of prosperity, he is a figure worth scrutinizing —a personality deserving of attention. One is informed warningly that Mr. Holt is a most difficult person to interview, that he is exceedingly reticent, hates publicity and is physically big enough to eject any obnoxious visitor from his office. One’s preconception of the man based on such a description is liable to consist largely of bearish characteristics. He is supposedly of the
growling, get-out-of-my-way, mindyour-own-business type of being, to whom a pencil and a notebook are synonymous with red rags to a bull.
But this picture belies the man somewhat. To the interviewer, he can be unpleasantly curt at times, but generally speaking he is courteous and unassuming. There are some people who cloak themselves in a mock modesty for a purpose. There are even those who object profanely to being made the subject of newspaper or magazine articles—with calculated theatrical effect. But Mr. Holt is your genuinely modest man. One might almost term him shy, though that would scarcely be in keeping with his stature and accomplishments. He is at any rate reserved and entirely unpretentious. He is the man of the board room, not of the convention hall; one who prefers the quiet of his library to the gossip of the club ; a good listener but an indifferent speaker. It is not improbable that his reticence and supposed coldness are directly attributable to an early conviction that nature had not gifted him with an ability to converse as entertainingly or tell stories as effectively as certain of his acquaintances. At any rate he is the type of man who says little and thinks
a great deal, and, while he can converse pleasantly in private, is as silent as a sphinx in public.
To the man on the street, H. S. Holt is, generally speaking, an unfamiliar personage. Though he is a most important factor in the life of practically every citizen of Montreal, and though his influence stretches out through financial and industrial channels to all parts of the Dominion, yet he is the least known of all the millionaires of the metropolis. For one thing he is exceedingly democratic in his dress. He is not a man who believes that the garb of a bank president should invariably consist of a silk hat and a frock coat, or that he should ride through the principal thoroughfares in a glittering limousine. An ordinary tweed suit and a felt hat are sufficiently becoming and far more serviceable, and to walk down from his residence on Stanley Street to his office in the Power Building is much better for his health. So he joins in the procession of bank clerks, merchants and lawyers and goes to his work like one of them, and that tall, sandy complexioned fellow, who rubs shoulders with you on Bleury Street, is like as not the great financier himself.
Mr. Holt is tall, with a somewhat slight frame. Robustness is not one of his characteristics, and he must needs live somewhat carefully and systematically. The daily constitutional has become a sort of necessity. The face is grave, even when it is lighted up with that odd smile of his, which draws the lips slowly back from the teeth. The hair is darkish in hue_, though showing signs of thinness, while a light moustache harmonizes with the fairness of .his complexion. The whole head is square-cut, giving indication of a determined will back of the calm exterior.
It is possible, or should be possible in the case of most successful men, to go back to a period in their lives and say : Just here the foundations were laid for their future greatness. True, many , influences, extending over a number of years, must needs combine to produce a strong personality, but there is usually some one formative epoch, which has much to do with the outcome. In the
case of the Montreal magnate, it was undoubtedly those early years he spent on the Credit Valley Railway, when he acted as resident engineer for James Ross during the latter’s career as superintendent. “We had some great old experiences in those days,” he remarks, as he is reminded of the time when, a callow, freckled, Irish youth, he did his share in keeping the wheels turning on the old road.
Those little pioneer railways which the men of a generation ago thrust through the sparsely settled districts of old Ontario—the Toronto, Grey and Bruce, the Toronto and Nipissing, the Midland, the Victoria, the Credit Valley and others—to-day prosperous divisions of the greater roads which eventually swallowed them up, were splendid training grounds for many men who have since become prominent in the life of the country. “Give me lt; a railway in difficulties to manage,” said a famous English railroad man on one occasion, “and I will work to far better advantage than if I had to look after a successful road.” It was the difficulties which beset the pioneer roads that were the making of such men as H. ¡3. Holt.
The future millionaire invaded Canada in 1875 at the age of nineteen years. He was just an ordinary young chap, quiet, well-mannered and without any outward indication that he would ever set the world on fire. He had been born and raised in Dublin and came to America with the army of emigrants who annually sailed from their native land to seek their fortune in the new world. Chance brought him into contact with James Ross soon after he landed. Ross was at the time engaged in operating the Victoria Railway, which stretched northward from Lindsay into the lumber districts of Haliburton, and on the Victoria Railway, along with J. W. Leonard, young Holt got his rudimentary education as an engineer. It was a good practical school land, being very much in earnest, the Irish boy was not long picking up such knowledge as was needed to qualify him for heavier undertakings. When Ross became superintendent of the Credit Valley, he
did not hesitate to carry his protege with him.
Veterans of the rail tell many amusing stories about the vicissitudes of the Credit Valley. Prior to its absorption by the Ontario and Quebec, it extended from Toronto to Woodstock, with two or three short branches, and it was sadly straightened for money. At times its credit was so bad that it could not secure a ton of coal to fire its engines and early travelers recall having to wait in the coaches at Parkdale until the agent could go, with the cash he had collected from the sale of tickets, and buy the necessary load of coal or wood to fill the tender. To such a low ebb had its fortunes dwindled in the early eighties that the late George Laidlaw, its promoter, was ready to sell the whole outfit to the Grand Trunk for six hundred thousand dollars, five hundred of which consisted of its debts.
With such an impecunious road as this Mr. Holt was associated for several years as a young man. He resided in Toronto with a brother and sister and was on intimate terms with a number of men who have subsequently become famous. He is described by some of his old friends as just a plain, hard-working young man, tall and slim, rather shy and silent, and conspicuous by reason of a profusion of freckles. As resident engineer he was called on to attend to a great deal of the detail work of management and proved himself to be capable, efficient and painstaking, with a fondness for studying out thoroughly every problem that presented itself for solution.
Young Holt’s abilities commended themselves to James Ross and, when the latter left the Credit Valley in 1883 to become superintendent of construction on the Canadian Pacific, out on the prairies, he invited the younger man to accompany him as his lieutenant. In his quiet way, Mr. . Holt informed his friends of his intentions and added that it would not be very long before he would take a hand in the contracting game himself. He was shrewd enough to see that it was the contractor who was making the money, not the en-
gineer, and he had a fancy that the possession of capital was not without its attractions. He went west in 1883, about the same time as William Mackenzie and Dan Mann and for nine years he was pretty closely associated with these two enterprising individuals. Indeed it may be said that while Messrs. Smith, Stephen, McIntyre and Angus were the quartette who financed the C. P. R. through its early stages, there was another quartette at work out on the prairies and in through the mountains, to wit Messrs. Ross, Holt, Mackenzie and Mann, who bore a large share of the burden of construction.
Mr. Holt’s prediction that he would soon become a contractor was early fulfilled. Indeed within a year his patron had made it possible for him to take up certain construction work on his own account. His influence grew and with it his ability to swing larger and larger contracts. On the prairie and mountain divisions, then in Quebec and Maine, he worked in close association with his trio of allies and, when in 1889 this work was completed, he spent three years in the west again, building the Regina, Qu’appelle and Long Lake Railway and the Calgary and Edmonton Railway.
Meanwhile his work in Quebec had brought him in contact with the Paton family in Sherbrooke, and an attachment had developed between the successful contractor and Miss Jessie Paton, the eldest daughter. This culminated in the marriage of the pair in 1890, a union which has been a very happy one. Thus fortune had been kind to the Irish boy. He had attained before he was forty years of age, wealth, prestige and an alliance with one of the leading families of the country. All this had come to him not by studied calculation nor by wire-pulling, but by merit. Nor was he ungrateful to the man who had given him such a boost up the ladder. The story is told that when Mr. Ross’ sister was to be married to James Grace, Mr. Holt went with a friend to purchase a wedding present. The pair visited a jewelry store and, having an-
nounced their purpose, were shown a number of articles, of which the average value was perhaps twenty dollars. Mr. Llolt pushed the boxes aside, “Show me something that means money,” said he, and presently made a purchase worth four hundred dollars. It was not vulgar ostentation that prompted him to such a lavish expenditure, for, whatever other defects he may have, TL S. Holt is not ostentatious, but simply a
desire to show that he owed a great deal to the man who had given him his start.
The year 1892 marked the dissolution of the activities of the railroad quartette. Henceforth Mackenzie and Mann were to hoe their own row, while Ross and Holt went their several ways, the former into those industrial and financial operations with which his name has since been associated and the latter
into the promotion of civic utilities. The decade from 1892 to 1902 marked the building up of the Montreal Light, Heat & Power Company by the consolidation of several smaller companies. Originating with the old Montreal Gas Company, of which Mr. Holt soon became president, and taking in from time to time, the Royal Electric Company, the Montreal and St. Lawrence Light and Power Company, the
Imperial Electric Company, the Lachine Rapids Hydraulic Company, the Citizens’ light and Power Company, and several others, a powerful organization, capitalized at seventeen million dollars, was ultimately created.
The sphere of influence of Montreal Power is extensive. Its charter, acquired from the Quebec Government in 1901, confers wide powers and to-day it transmits current not only all over the
city of Montreal, but to a large section of the surrounding country. Its customers for electric power number 33,000 and for gas 60,000. It has great power plants at Chambly on the Richelieu River, at Soulanges and Lachine on the St. Lawrence River and at Shawinigan Falls. Despite the almost despotic methods by wffiich its president has forced his competitors to the wall and has secured a practical monopoly of the business of supplying power and light in the Montreal district, he has been shrewd enough not to antagonize the public. Time was when Montreal Power was not in as good repute as it is to-day. There were murmurs. People did not view with pleasure the absorption of the independent companies. To offset this Mr. Holt has wisely taken steps to popularize his company and a reduction in prices of both electricity and gas, made last July, has served to sooth the public irritation.
In the evolution of this great consolidated utility corporation, Mr. Holt has been the prime mover. Montreal Power has been his pet project. He has devoted to it the largest share of his time and attention. He has made electrical development his hobby, until there is not an engineer in his employ who knows more about the details of the system than himself. In brief, he is the company’s own consulting engineer with his fingers on every part of the system.
Up to 1902, the work of consolidating the power companies of Montreal was sufficient to absorb most of Mr. Holt’s time. Since then, while still watching with close attention the progress of the great company he had brought into being, he has allowed himself to be drawn into other enterprises. First and foremost among these must be placed his banking interests. It has almost faded from the minds of most people that, when the ill-fated Sovereign Bank first opened its doors in January 1902, the president of the new institution was LT. S. Holt. For three years he occupied this position, and they were undoubtedly years of spectacular
progress. How much of the early success of the Bank must be apportioned to the ability of its president and how much to the skill of its general manager, it would be hard to tell, but, taking into account the characteristics of the former, there can be little doubt that his influence counted for a good deal.
In 1905, one of those sudden, inexplicable changes took place which set loose all manner of conjectures. All that the public knew was that the president of the Sovereign had resigned and had immediately joined the directorate of the Royal. It was given out at the time by way of explanation that it was a little awkard for the Sovereign Bank to have its head office in one city and its president in another. But this explanation hardly held water since it was equally true that the general manager had his office and lived in Montreal. It was much more probable that there was some little discord between the two officials, which was easily settled by the president’s resignation. At the same time there can be little doubt that the Royal Bank, which was on the eve of removing its head office from Halifax to Montreal, was eager to secure the support of such a prominent Montrealer as Mr. Holt and made attractive overtures to him.
In the light of future happenings, there are those who point to Mr. Holt’s sudden change as an excellent illustration of his shrewdness and foresight. They would have it that he knew there were breakers ahead, and was alert enough to leave the doomed vessel before it was too late. Such a charge, if it were true, would be a serious blot on the financier’s reputation, but no one who knows him would believe it for a minute. It would be entirely out of keeping with his character. Instead of avoiding difficulties, he is just the man who delights in facing them. Besides this it must be remembered that three years were to elapse before the Sovereign bubble burst and that the cause of its collapse was not attributable to
any transactions that had taken place during his presidency.
The Royal Bank had been known as the Merchants’ Bank of Halifax up to 1901. In 1903 its chief executive offices were transferred to Montreal and in 1906 its head office followed. Immediately on his appointment to the directorate Mr. Holt was marked for its presidency. The veteran Thomas E. Kenny was about to retire and in 1906 the Montrealer became vice-president. Two years later, the same year that witnessed the failure of the Sovereign, he stepped into the presidency. Surely there was a little of the irony of fate in this promotion.
No bank in Canada has made more rapid strides in recent years than the Royal. From the little Merchants Bank of Halifax to the third largest bank in the Dominion, almost within ten years, is a big step. In his presidential capacity Mr. Holt has shown himself alert and aggressive and, while it would be untrue to say that he has been personally responsible for the rapid advance of the bank, it must be admitted that his energy, his constant watchfulness and his resourcefulness have had no small influence on the result. The present expansion began with the absorption of the Union Bank of Halifax in 1910. In 1911 followed the acquisition of the West Indian branches of the Colonial Bank of London, and this fall the public have been treated to the spectacle of the biggest merger in the history of Canadian banking when the Royal and the Traders amalgamated. In all these transactions the president of the Royal took a direct personal interest.
It is most significant that every industrial corporation with which Mr. Holt has become associated as director, stands high in the estimation of the public. While there is not an enterprise that would not be delighted to have his support, he has exercised discrimination in picking the companies with which he has allowed his name to figure. Anything questionable, anything largely speculative he has avoided. Thus in surveying the industrial field,
you will only find mention of him in such highly respectable enterprises as the Steel Company of Canada, the Canada Paper Company, the Canadian Car and Foundry Co., the Canadian General Electric Company, the Dominion Textile Company, Montreal Cottons Limited, Ogilvie Flour Mills Company and Price Bros, and Company. He has also taken an interest in the London Street Railway and the Monterey Railway, Light and Power Company, while he is president of the Kaministiquia Power Company and director of the Shawinigan Water and Power Company.
The crowning point of Mr. Holt’s successful career may be said to have been reached in 1911, when he became a director of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Following the death of the late Robert Meighan and the late Senator Forget, two vacancies occurred on the board of the great transcontinental. It is said that there was no hesitation in naming H. S. Holt for the first of these vacancies. He wTas the great outstanding figure of the day in the world of finance and the railway directors felt that their board would be greatly strengthened by his inclusion.
If to these various offices, industrial, financial and administrative, be added the presidency of the Montreal Trust Company, one is provided with a fairly complete list of the more important activities of the great man. How he contrives to attend to the manifold duties connected with these numerous positions is a mystery, for H. S. Holt is not of the figurehead type of director. That he does succeed in impressing his personality on everything he takes up is evidence that his interest is not ephemeral. The secret perhaps lies in the fact that he is a man of business, first and last. He has no distractions. He has no hobbies. Lie works early and late. He concentrates all his faculties on the one object—business success.
On Stanley Street, up near the base of Mount Royal, there is a fine stone residence, which is pointed out as the
home of the president of the Montreal. Light, Heat and Power Company. It is a very luxurious mansion, as befits a man of his position. But one doesn’t see its rooms and furnishings illustrated in the weekly papers. In his private life Mr. Holt is just as free from ostentation as in his business life. To live finely has not been his objective, though he recognizes fully the value of pleasing surroundings. His has been largely the simple life.
His round of existence therefore requires no long telling. The matutinal walk to the office, the busy morning at his desk, luncheon with a few congenial friends at the select Mount Royal Club, the afternoon’s duties in office or board room, dinner at home and an evening in his library, make up the day’s w*ork, with those necessary variations which must break into any great man’s routine. At one time he found an occasional Opportunity for golf at Dixie, but his appearance on the links is rare now. In place of golf, he exercises at home and walks as often as he can. He is one of the few Montreal magnates who does not boast a summer home. Holiday time
he customarily spends on a transatlantic trip, when he loses no opportunity of studying engineering developments on the continent at first hand.
This then is the man who has cut so important a figure in the financial life of Canada during the past decade. Big, brainy and aggressive, he ranks high among the men who are developing the resources of the country. He may lack those characteristics which render a man popular, he may be blunt, he may want his own way a little too much, but no one can deny that he is upright, broad-minded and sincere. He is not a man who attracts or seeks friends, but he always enjoys the society of a small circle of intimates. He is serious, not given to hilarity, and constantly devoted |to business, but he can relax on occasion and be merry and sociable. Those who work directly under him, the officials of his companies, admire him hugely. The business men of Montreal respect him. He is generally regarded as a solid character, able in administration, brilliant in finance, a man to be reckoned with in any work to which he sets his hand. ' f