The Rise of McCurdy M.P.
The Causes that Poured Oil on the Flames of a Youth’s Ambition
JAMES GRANVILLE FLEMING
JUST A TRIFLE over twelve years ago, a well-set-up and energetic-looking young man rented a small room in the Metropole Building in Halifax and employed a sign-writer to inscribe the name, F. B. McCurdy & Co., on the door. The Company part of the inscription was merely attached for the sake of style, the young man being his own partner.
Every morning after the banks were opened, McCurdy & Co. wonld sally forth, lock the door and make a round of these financial institutions. II i s purpose was to buy and sell exchange, a little service which was appreciated b y the bankers. When he had finished his traffic, he would return to the room in the Metropole Building and enter up the transactions in his ledger.
In this humble way was laid the foun dation of what has since grown into one of the most spectacular financial edifices in Canada. A dosen years have been sufficient for this young Napoleon of finance, Flemi n g Blanchard McCurdy, to achieve material prosperity, win political renown and pass from f 'ie role of dealer
The average Canadian know» of the aubjeet of this »ketch only a» the man who deflated Hon. W. 8. Fielding, the Finance Minister, in the late Federal Government of Kir Wilfred Laurier.
The microscope of cold, critical analysis ha» been applied by a discerning journalist whose conclusions and findings will give to the reader, not »u much a prCper estimate of the man McCurdy, as an intellectual dissection of temperament and native genius.—Editor.
tu exchange into that of the head of a powerful brokerage house with widespread interests and connections.
The career of F. B. McCurdy recalls to a certain extent that of another easterner bv the name of Max Aitken. There is a good deal of similarity in the story of the way in which these two young men gained their supremacy in the world of finance. Both took advantage of opportunities to acquire power through the engineering of mergers and the floating of combines. But whereas Sir Max Aitken soon left the scene of his earlier successes and sought fresh conquests in a larger field, F. B. McCurdy has limited his operations very largely to the exploitation of Nova Scotia enterprises.
Like so many men of note he was born on a farm and in sufficiently humble circumstances to render his rise all the more notable The parental estate was located near the town of Truro. He obtained such education as his father could give him in the village school at Clifton, and then in IS90, at the age of fifteen years, enter-
ed the employ of the Halifax Banking Company, accepting a junior clerkship in the Truro branch. Strange to say the bank manager who employed him and gave him his first instruction in banking, is to-day one of his own employees in Halifax.
From Truro, young McCurdy was moved in due course to the head office in Halifax, where he attracted the attention of Mr. H. N. Wallace, the cashier, or, as it is now called, the manager, who appointed him his secretary. Mr. McCurdy was at that time a typical, sport-loving bank clerk. Gifted with a strong physique and inspired with a determination to excel in any game he undertook to play, he soon made a name for himself in sporting circles. As an oarsman, a canoeist, a hockeyist and a football player, he became highly proficient.
Those who are watching him play the game of finance to-day find a close resemblance between his methods now and his tactics on the foot-ball field. Determined, fearless, hard as nails, he used to be a dangerous opponent and in many a stiff contest, he would drive through the enemies line by sheer brute force, and carry the ball down the field. He was for some years a star forward player on the celebrated Halifax Wanderers team. *
An Index of His Courage
His determination not to let any obstacles deter him in the accomplishment of a design had its illustrations even in those days. The story is told that h6 once went out with some friends to spend Sunday on the Arm, a noted summer playground near Halifax. The afternoon was passed on the water, engaging in a number of aquatic contests of one sort or another, in which he proved to be extremely adept. When evening came he announced his intention of going across the Arm to church. Some one dared him to paddle over standing up in his cánoe. He accepted the challenge and set out, all arrayed in his best clothes. When half way over, despite his most skilful handling, the canoe capsized throwing him into the water. He righted it as best he could, clambered in and returned to shore, where he coolly proceeded to change his clothes. When he was dressed once more, instead of settling down to spend the evening where he was, he started out for the second time and succeeded in making the passage. It is this element of never-give-in in his character that has contributed so much to his success in after-life.
It was in his banking days that he struck up a friendship with a young law student by the name of John R. Macleod, who boarded in the same house. Macleod was a quiet, methodical, dreamy sort of chap, who thought a good deal and was addicted to figuring plans for the future. The two men compared notes, discussed their ambitions together and generally helped each other along. They were the natural complements, one of the other,—McCurdy, aggressive, dominant and strong-willed; Macleod, cautious, calculating and resourceful.
The pair must have had many conversations over their prospects. They were able with their keen young wits to size up a situation which up till then had escaped the attention of the conservative old financial institutions of the Eastern provinces. This was the absence of almost all effort to get the monied classes to invest their funds in local enterprises. McCurdy, through his acquaintance with the affairs of the Halifax Banking Company, knew that there was plenty of money awaiting the man, who could present attractive investments in an up-todate way to the people. Nova Scotians were generally speaking well-to-do folk, who, instead of investing in their own province, were sending their money to the West and sinking it in mines and real estate.
The Germinal Idea Grows
From this germinal idea, there grew the plan for the business of F. B. McCurdy & Co. Mr. Wallace viewed the project sympathetically and promised such support as he could give. The exsecretary had saved up a few thousand dollars during his banking career and with this modest capital and in the way already mentioned, he branched out in the early part of 1901.
From selling exchange, Mr. McCurdy soon expanded his activities into a general brokerage business and the little office in the Metropole Building presently became the scene of considerable life and movement. It must be remembered that at this time, business in Halifax was done on extremely conservative lines. There were one or two houses dealing in stocks and bonds but such a thing as a leased wire was unknown. Likewise marginal trading was a proposition that received little or no attention.
McCurdy sprang both these novelties on the public with great success. He acquired a private wire to Montreal and through sub-leasing it to brokers in Sherbrooke and St. John, reduced the heavy rental considerably. He appointed an agent in Montreal to handle his orders on the exchange and set to work to cultivate business in Halifax. For a time the startled Haligonians were inclined to think he was running a bucketshop, and indeed some steps were taken by the authorities to stop his operations, but it was soon demonstrated that he was carrying on a perfectly legal enter-
Then this progressive young man made another innovation. He started the peddling of stocks and bonds through the country. Hitherto people who wanted to invest had to go to the brokers to do so. No effort was made to practice the arts of salesmanship on them or to cultivate the great untilled field of hoarded savings. First one salesman was employed and then another until quite a large selling force was at work. A selling system was built up, which has proved it usefulness in the case of numerous flotations.
But buying and selling stocks for other people, no matter how vigorously it maj be prosecuted, is but a slow road to
wealth. Olther resources must be tapped. It is not unlikely that Mr. McCurdy made his first important haul through the reorganization of the Stanfield woolen industry in Truro, early in 1906. Under the ¡skilful management of the Stanfield brothers, the business was expanding ranidly and a flotation of new stock to finance its enlargement looked like a goo<_ thing. McCurdy, Macleod and the two Stanfields, all young men, formed a quartette typical of the new and progresáive spirit, which was beginning to leaven maritime enterprises. Macleod promoted the deal, McCurdy underwrote the new issue of stock, and the Stanfields: stood by the undertaking. When it cama time to interest the public in the proposition, the McCurdy firm ran an excursion to Truro, entertained a large party of people at the mill and ultimately succeeded in disposing of one on the most successful industrial offerings in Canada!
From this time onward the firm of McCurdy & Cp.^became identified with most of the new stock flotations and company promotions in Eastern Canada. Apart from tlje Trinidad Consolidatéd Telephones which was launched in 1909, with a paid-up capital of $420,000, the bulk of these offerings were made during 1911 and 1912. - Most important of all and undoubtedly! the one deal in which Mr. McCurdy profited most, was the flotation of the Maritime Telephone & Telegraph Company’s securities. This company was started in a modest way about six years ago and gradually absorbed a number of the smaller independent companies in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Then in 1911, Mr. McCurdy and his associates got after the Nova Scotia Telephone Company and by making a clever deal, secured possession of: this company as well. Stock and bonds to the value of $2,680,000 have subsequently been sold and in the transaction, Mr. McCurdy is said to have made over a quarter of a million dollars.
The same year witnessed the establishment of the Nova Scotia Car Works, in the foundation of which the young Napoleon of finance again pjayed a leading part. The new company, which he promoted, acquired the business of the Silliker Car Co. and has since developed it to large proportions. Between two and three million dollars was involved in this deal. Scarcely had the Car Works proposition been concluded than the energetic promoter proceeded to acquire and re-organize the Hewson Woolen Mills in Amherst. A new company, known as the Hewson Pure Wool Textiles, Limited, was formed and stock and bonds to the value of $1,100,000 were disposed of.
June of 1912 witnessed the Nova Scotia Clay Works flotation. This »s a smaller industry, but a prosperous due, involving a capitalization of $600,0)00. Two months later the North Atlantic Fisheries, with a paid-up capital of a million dollars, was launched, 3oncludi^g a lengthy list of successful enterprise^.
Mr. McCurdy had also become interested privately in a pulp industry on the Mersey River, which is now controlled entirely by Macleod and himself, under the name of the Macleod Pulp Company, so that his association with the development of industry in Nova Scotia has been far-reaching and varied.
There are two other incidents in Mr. McCurdy’s career as a financier that possess no small interest. It was largjly owing tc his astuteness that the effort of Sir Rodolphe Forget and his associates to acquire control of the Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Company in the spring of 1910 failed. He acted for the president and directors of the Company in the purchase of the stock that continued the latter in control, outwitting the Montreal financier.
Then more recently he became involved in a struggle for the control of the Halifax Tramway Company with Mr. E. A. Robert of Montreal. He and Mr. Macleod had in view the development of power on the Mersey River, while Mr. Robert and Sir Frederick Borden aimed to bring in power from the Gaspereanx River. Mr. McCurdy eventually secured a large block of stock, but, when neither party was able to make a further move, he consented to sell out to Mr. Robert, who is now in possession. The subsequent effort of the Montreal financier to get legislation passed which would enable him to proceed with development work on the Gaspereaur, has been temporarily foiled, largely, it is believed,
through the veiled opposition of the McCurdy forces.
Contemporaneously with the consummation of these deals, there occurred an expansion in the equipment and personnel of the McCurdy firm, which had its visible sign in the recent acquisition of the old Union Bank Building on Hollis Street, Halifax, in which the head office of the Company is now luxuriously accommodated. These offices are probably the finest brokerage offices in Canada, being spacious and handsomely appointed. They are within a few feet of the Metropole Building in which Mr. McCurdy started business twelve years ago, and are an indication in stone and mortar of the rapidity xvith which he has come to the front.
The firm itself has expanded from a one-man company, into an organization controlled by five progressive young financiers. Mr. McCurdy first took into partnership. Mr. R. H. Metzler. Later he induced John R. Macleod to leave his lone furrow and cast in his fortune with his old-time friend. Then Mr.
Bowser, a one-time banker, was admitted and more recently Mr. K. R. Schofield of Montreal was taken in, to act as the Company’s floor member on the Montreal Stock Exchange. Offices were opened from time to time in Montreal, Sydney, Ottawa, St. John, N. R., St. John's, Nfld., Sherbrooke, Kingston and Charlottetown, until to-day the McCurdy organization is all-powerful in Eastern Canada.
As a Politician
Apart from his extraordinary success as a financier, tin* chief source ol popular interest in Mr. McCurdy’s career rests with his achievements as a politician. He will long he remembered as the mull who defeated the Hon. W. S. Fielding in the seemingly impregnable liberal stronghold ol Queen's-Slielbiirne in September, 1911. How he came to take his stand as a candidate for election is probably known only to himself. Some would have it that he was persuaded to make the attempt by his partner, Macleod, who was high up in the counsels of the conservative party. Others imagine that he offered himself at the solicitation of Mr. Borden himself. However, it may have been, be contested the riding with the same thoroughness and indomitable persistency, which he threw into every struggle he had ever entered upon, and came through victorious. There are stories of all sorts about this election, but when all is said and done, there can be little doubt that he owed his success to the most complete business organization that was ever installed in a Nova Scotia constituency.
In the case of many men, situated as was Mr. McCurdy, entry into Parliament would be simply a farce. He had won a strong liberal seat for the conservatives, had derived no inconsiderable fame from the feat, and might be expected to shirk his duties at Ottawa as much as he liked. But, however, much of a sacrifice was involved, the new member was not the kind to take advantage of his wealth and prestige. He threw himself as vigorously into the discharge of his Parliamentary duties as he had into those games of football and those financial deals, which have been already described. He installed a telephone between his desk in the room in the Parliament Buildings set apart for the use of the Conservative members from Nova Scotia, and the office of the firm in Ottawa, and, while attending closely to the proceedings of the House or of its committees, contrived to maintain constantly direct communication with his various offices. He employed a secretary and spent such time as he could snatch from Parliamentary affairs in dictating correspondence about his own business. In this way, he solved a problem, which other less energetic men would have found insoluble.
The member for Queen ’s-Shelburne bas spoken on several occasions in the House, particularly in connection with the Bank Act, when his contribution to the debate was regarded as of considerable weight. He is as yet only a tyro, but gives promise of becoming a strong speaker. Already there is improvement in his delivery. He gives evidence of being a clear thinker and speaks in a calm and collective manner that conveys a good impression.
It would be interesting to speculate as to his future as a politician. What his ambitions are in this direction, or even whether he lias any ambitions, are known only to himself. He has not taken any of his friends into his confidence. That he woold make an able adminstrator is be-
yond question, but there is always a doubt in these days of popular disapproval of modern capitalistic methods, whether one who has been so prominently identified with company promotion could ever hope to gain sufficient 'support to take a leading place in government. In Nova Scotia there are no doubt many conservatives who would gladly welcome him as a leader, and he certainly possesses the means to gratify any ambitions of the sort.
The Man of Business
First, last and always a man of business, Mr. McCurdy seeks to deceive no one as to his intentions. His aim and purpose has been to make money and all his movements have been calculated to further this end. A glance at his face, round and good-humored though it be, is sufficient to discover that inscrutable" look that has puzzled many a negotiator. An excellent hand at a game of poker; would this same F. B. McCurdy make, if he were inclined to play. In sheer desperation at his immobility, an opponent would be compelled to throw his cards on the table. This capacity of drawing the other fellow out has been one of his most powerful assets.
Cold-blooded, too, is this man of high finance. Witness the story that is told of his share in the extinction of the Empire Trust Company of Halifax. This institution was founded some years ago by a number of local capitalists, who succeeded by slow degrees in erecting it into a fairly prosperous business. Whether Mr. McCurdy premeditated its doom or not, he gradually acquired sufficient stock to qualify him for a directorship. Once seated at the board, he suggested an increase of capital and offered to purchase all the new shares which would not be taken up by the shareholders. The directors agreed. New stock was issued, and when it came time to cast up accounts, the financier was in control of a majority of the stock. He then, neglecting all sentiment, coolly turned over the Company to its older rival, the Eastern Trust Company, of which he is now a director and a heavy stockholder.
There are other highly useful qualities in the McCurdy composition. He is a man of almost painful thoroughness, with a memory like the day of doom. Woe to the employee who forgets to perform even the most trivial commission. He may not remember everything at once, but the hour always comes when each order is recalled. His day’s work is mapped out with exactitude. He never wastes a minute in useless conversation. It is business all the, time.
When he travels abroad he keeps in constant touch by wire or letter with his office in Halifax. There is no cutting adrift entirely from business affairs when he departs on a so-called holiday. It may be announced in the social column that he and Mrs. McCurdy (who by the way was a daughter of the late Hon. B. F. Pearson), are motoring in Europe, but those who know him best, add, “And I bet he’s earning his salary, too.”
The Qualities That Count
He has a quick eye for mistakes, and should all other employment fail, would make a capable proofreader. Time and again, he has sent to the office a clipping from some newspaper containing the firm’s financial letter, in which he has marked the errors. He scans proof with the experienced eye of a printer, notes the typographical arrangement, the make-up and the alignment and always wants the work done just so.
With all this concentration and strenuous application, a man must needs possess a strong physique and thanks to his training in earlier years, he is able to endure a good deal of hard work. Standing about five feet, nine inches in height, he is of stocky build and weighs two hundred pounds. He has almost entirely forsaken athletics for business and except for a little tennis now and then at his summer home across the Arm, the only exercise he gets is in motoring. Occasionally in company with some business associates he goes fishing or shooting, but these expeditions are becoming rarer.
He is a man, who while extremely well posted on a great variety of subjects, seemingly reads very little. He usually leaves his office between six and seven, and often carries a bundle of newspapers and financial journals with him, but when he finds time to read them is a mystery. He and Mrs. McCurdy entertain a great deal and seldom an evening passes but there is company in the house. Possibly most of his information is derived from conversation, for he always shows himself willing to listen to anyone who has something worth while to say. He has a ready pen and up to within a few years ago, himself wrote the financial letter, which appears weekly in the Halifax Chronicle and other Maritime newspapers under the firm name. He began to write for the financial column of the Chronicle when he was a bank clerk.
As yet Mr. McCurdy has not signalized himself as being particularly publicspirited, in the sense of being one who has sought to make himself conspicuous by large donations to charities or public causes. All this may come later on. It is said that when he was first approached to contribute to the campaign for the expansion of Dalhousie University, he met the solicitor with the query: “What have I got to do with higher education? I never had any. Go to those who have profited by it.” This was, of course, simply a bluff. He did contribute to the fund, offering to give the sum of $25,000, if the campaign was for $800,000 and less in proportion. As the figure aimed at was only $400,000, his gift amounted to $12,500.
Interested in all movements that tend towards the development of his native province, Mr. McCurdy agreed last January to become president of the Halifax Board of Trade, a position in which he is able to -wield no small influence. This, coupled with his seat in Parliament and
his close alliance with the Premier, gives him a strong hold on the fortunes of Nova Scotia. He is still young in years, is blessed with a robust constitution, and may be expected to do things in the future that will make him even more conspicuous among Canadian financiers.
Education for Education
What is needed more than anything else, says, Lord High Chancellor Haldane of Great Britain, is a campaign of “Education for Education.” On the surface it is true, that very few signs in England of that almost passionate faith and interest in education, which animates Germany, United States and Switzerland. No small number of the English of the upper classes still appear not to have outgrown the suspicion that education is something dangerous and ensnaring, and unsettles people and makes them too independent, and gives them ideas above their station.
There is nothing in England like the demand in Germany for a specially equipped student. Manufacturers and commercial England is nearer three decades than one behind both Germany and the United States, in its recognition of the value, and its provision of the apparatus of scientific instruction and research. It is doubtful indeed, whether in any of the great industrial countries the educational system is so divorced from, and of so little use to the nation’s business. Instances abound where important manufactures have been wrested from England because their rivals have adopted more scientific methods.
An Education Bill in the British Parliament almost always resolves itself into a battle, not between educational experts, but between rival sets of theologians, each anxious to preserve the special interest on some particular denomination and each of them, to that extent oblivious of the national aspects of the question as a whole.
But England is getting better. The realization of the vitiating blot on the system of education is the lack of sequence. It was an appalling fact that when Lord Haldane went to the War Office something like 13 per cent, of the recruits, although they had been taught in the elementary schools, could neither read nor write, having forgotten what they had learnt owing to there being no continuation schools. But what Great Britain is, and may be, is involved in the question of Education. The peril of ignorance, of slipshod ways of thinking and acting, and the depressing average of intelligence, is the real peril that confronts England. The crisis will be averted only by approaching it in the spirit in which Germany grappled with the problems of her resurrection. In Education lies the great future of Great Britain.