J. FRIEND DAY
TWO men entered the smoking room of the Hotel Astor, New York City, and “whiffed”; the scent of a well-seasoned briar was in the air. “Gosh,” said the first, “that’s a juicy one. You don’t often smell one so strong. Who has it?” “There’s only one man who smokes a pipe as strong as that,” replied his friend. “Birge of Canada must be here.” He was.
Cyrus Albert Birge—farm-boy, medical student, grocer, accountant, manufacturer, and banker—whose merger of the Bank of Hamilton with the Bank of Commerce has made his name known throughout the Dominion, is a good example of the men who have made industrial Canada, though it is likely he would deny the charge, for he is above all things modest.
Imagine a well-built man of middle height, with silvery hair and beard, cautious in speech, and with a rather kindly eye which “sizes you up” quite thoroughly, and you have a good impression of Mr. Birge. He is not one of the story-book characters who reads you—past, present, and future—with one flash from steel-grey eyes, but is a man who makes a quiet appraisal in a few minutes—at least it feels like minutes when you are under it—and then has his mind made up.
One of the stock questions which every interviewer asks successful men is: “To what do you attribute your success?” It wouldn’t be a real interview if this question were omitted, and the answers are as different as chalk and cheese.
One man will reply: “Because I was always open to new ideas.” Another: “Because I stuck to old ways, and rejected new stunts.” A third will say: “I never wasted time in play, but kept my nose to the grindstone.” While a fourth will be quite sure he was successful “because I always played sufficiently to keep myself master of the business.” All of which simply means that there is no royal road to success, but as many different roads as there are men willing to travel them.
When this ancient question was put to Cyrus A. Birge, he had no formula like these; he just answered—“Hard work and common-sense. Whatever success I have attained I attribute to my moral and physical training as a boy on the farm: that, and hard work.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
His common-sense had in it elements of courage and decision that he might not be prepared fully to recognize, but of that, the reader will learn as he goes along. To begin with, Mr. Birge had the courage to take hold of a business in which he had had no experience. He had the judgment to see where its weakness lay, and the nerve to change the system of doing business, even against the direct expressed opinion of the president. He had the energy to work sixteen and more hours a day—and did a lot of his planning at night when others were asleep. After he had run the business in this way for fifteen years, he had the experience and intuition which justified him in mortgaging his home, and pledging everything else he had in order to buy out the entire plant, and then after an exhaustive investigation to buy raw materials on a rising market until he had a huge stock standing on his books at about half the price it ultimately reached. If these various qualities—courage, judgment, nerve, energy, business experience and intuition—come under the comprehensive head of “common-sense,” then Cyrus Birge has it, and in overflowing measure.
Chores and the “Swimmin' Hole”
HIS start was just the ordinary one which thousands of Canadian boys have had, and will have again. He was born in a little house which stands on the edge of the Toronto-Hamilton highway, two blocks from his present palatial home. His father was Herman P. Birge, of Hartford, Connecticut, and his mother Helen M. Ainslie, of U.E.L. stock. He had the usual life of a boy on the farm—chores in the morning, school at Oakville, more chores in the evening, and it is' quite certain that he was the normal boy with a healthy touch of mischief, and joy in the old “swimmin’ hole.” When he was fourteen, he transferred to the Oakville Grammar School, and at eighteen began to work in a dry-goods store, also at Oakville. His ambition always had been to become a doctor, and so, after three years behind the counter, he matriculated at Victoria University Medical School, then at Cobourg, where he learned to sing lustily that famous and inspiring song— which was also a part of the “curriculum” of such famous Canadians as Sir Clifford Sifton, Dr. Banting, Mr. Justice Maclaren, and Mr. Justice Masten—which runs in part as follows:
“At first they used me rather roughly, “As I the fearful gauntlet ran; “They tossed me all about, “And they turned me inside out— “On the old Ontario strand.”
It is hard to imagine him as delicate, for he is to-day the picture of robust health, but after one year at the
medical school a weakness of the lungs made itself evident, and he had to get into open-air life to fight off incipient tuberculosis. He farmed a seven-acre strawberry patch for the whole season, and this year’s work set him up in health so well that he went to Stratford and opened a grocery store. He established another important institution in that same year, when he married for the first time. Apparently the grocery business was not his forte, for after a couple of years he sold out, went to Chatham, bought a bankrupt stock of groceries and hardware, sold this, and entered the engineering department of the Great Western Railway, where he stayed for ten years as accountant.
Until the war, railroads had not been noted for paying very high wages, and it is easy to imagine that the $45 a month he received from the G.W.R. taught him the value of nickels, and did not leave much margin for amusements. To run a home and carry the responsibilities of a married, man on $1.50 a day would be a wonderful training for some of the young bloods of to-day, even after making full allowances for the difference in purchasing power of the dollar, and Mr. Birge considers that the modern mode of living and craving for amusement is not a sound development, being—as it is—costly and cumulatively extravagant.
He stayed in the employ of the railway until 1882, but he didn’t ask for any advance in salary, and as the authorities didn’t offer him any, it was up to him to make the next move, as a matter of common-sense.
The Canada Screw7 Company at Dundas, Ont., was owned by the American Screw7 Company of Providence, R.I. The business was in poor shape and on the dow7n grade, and Birge was offered the position of manager. He accepted, and the G.W.R. then got busy and offered to double his salary if he would stay with them. He refused the bait in a very characteristic way:
“If I wasn’t worth the money before, I’m not worth it now,” he told his chief.
“But you never asked for an increase,” came back the reply.
“No,” said Birge, “I let my work speak for me. I’ve been waiting for an advance for years, and now I’m going.” This w7as the turning point in his career, for he then entered the manufacturing end of business, and has never deserted it.
On the whole question of advances, Mr. Birge was asked if he thought a salaried employee should follow his example and not ask for an advance in pay. He replied: “No, it is a mistake. He should ask—if he’s worth one.”
To put it mildly, the Dundas plant was on its last legs when he took hold. The president came over from Providence, R.I., put Birge in charge, spent a day on the job, and then departed, leaving him to sink or swim. WTien he had taken an inventory of the whole outfit, it looked as though he would have to sink; conditions were so rotten that the place was thoroughly bankrupt. There was one redeeming feature. Control was aw7ay off in New England, which meant that he had practically a free hand, with a visit from his chief executive about once in six months. He found that the company was manufacturing, and supplying both the wholesale and retail trades. He discovered that this double-barrelled policy was costly and crippling to the business, and he asked authority to eliminate the retail trade entirely, but headquarters did not accede to his request. The situation was desperate—-the business could not do more than crash—a crash was inevitable anyhow the way things were going— and he thereupon acted on his own judgment, cut out the retail trade and dealt with the wholesale trade only. It is to be remembered, of course, that these happenings occurred forty years ago, and in those days the whole problem of distribution was in a confused and haphazard state. The modern efficiency which characterizes retail trading was unknown, and consistency in systems of purchasing or distribution had not been attained.
Good results followed and when the president paid his next visit, he had to congratulate Birge on the progress the business was making. He was told quite frankly that it was due to disobedience to his orders, but he was big enough to recognize results, and not to take offence, and the following spring Birge was elected director, vice-president, and treasurer of the company. Quick results in twelve months from “commonsense,” plus hard work, and hard thinking during every waking hour.
The business grew beyond the capacity of the Dundas premises, and in 1887 he persuaded his board to transfer it to Hamilton, and to increase the capitalization from $100,000 to $500,000. .The change justified itself, and the business steadJly increased in its new location.
Scenting Impending Boom
IN 1898, fifteen years after he had taken over the management, a period of depression was ending and Birge, who Had been following the development of world and Canadian conditions intensively, had the experience and intuition to see that a time of prosperity was looming up, with a big demand in the screw business. He bought steel rods, the raw material for his plant, up to the normal limit, and then asked for authority to buy more, as he foresaw a rising market and a shortage in supplies. His request was refused, and this brought him up against a condition which called into play all his knowledge, judgment, and powers of observation. He knew what he had done with the business already; he knew it could be increased greatly; he,was convinced that opportunity was knocking at the door and was being kept out through these refusals. He therefore made another of his big decisions, mortgaged his home and everything that he owned, bought out the U.S. interests and prepared to work harder than ever. This was only the beginning. While he had been negotiating to buy the business, the market for rods had risen, but he weighed up the situation, decided that his former judgment was correct, and began to lay hands on steel rods wherever he could buy them. The market kept on rising and Birge kept on buying, and he didn’t stop until he had 5,000 tons of steel rods lying in his yards. The confidence in his own knowledge and judgment which enables a man to mortgage everything to buy a business, and then on top of that to buy raw materials beyond all the apparent limits of common-sense, has in it something which is inspiring.
There are many people who put down every success
to “luck,” or “pull,” or something equally unsatisfactory.
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B i e—o f Canada
Continued from page 23
As a matter of fact, though chance does play a part in the success attained by some, it has very little bearing in the success of the great majority. When a man specializes in his business, works at it intensively, and studies all of its lluctuations, there is developed in him i something like a sixth sense. It might be called “business intuition,” but whatever its name it is a quality which enables him to weigh up all the factors immediately present in his business and to calculate the movements of his trade in the near future. This power of foreseeing what ought to be done, and then the courage and confidence to do it, means a combination of qualities not too common, and the matter of buying out the screw business and then purchasing steel rods in bulk is a concrete instance of what these qualities mean.
Reaping the Reward of Foresight
BEFORE the boom period had passed its high mark, the price of steel rods was just double the average price he had paid for his total stock; there was a period of prosperous business, the demand for his company’s product was brisk, and through his ample supplies of cheap materials he reaped the reward of I his business foresight.
It must not be thought that all this was just strenuous work followed by a marked success, and then a repetition of the whole performance. While he was working for others, he did not spare himself but went back to the office as long as work was there to be done. Before he became owner of the Canada I Screw Company, for fourteen years he j took no vacation, and was at the plant almost every night. This burning of the j candle at both ends had a natural limit, j and when he began to crack under the strain, he had the sense to stop it. He was “under the weather” for about three months, and on his return to ! business found that the plant was running quite satisfactorily. He, therefore took the hint, and worked overtime at his desk no more. Instead he taught the lessons of experience to others and his brain, relieved from the presence of details, has been concentrated on policies.
Employment of labor is a searching test of what a man is, and it is significant that during his time of management and personal ownership of the company his relations with his stafïs were very harmonious.
Just one interesting instance of this: Business happened to be on the downgrade at the same time that the employees were getting restive for advances in wages. Birge thought that a certain Englishman of rather radical tendencies was at the bottom of the unrest, and he therefore called a meeting and put his cards on the table. When the whole staff was gathered, he got up and said: “I have called this meeting to have a frank discussion of the present business conditions. Business is getting dull, and I can see nothing before us but a quiet time, and many plants closing down. I have gone into the matter very thoroughly, as I want to keep the plant running and you employed. Now, by cutting prices down to cost, and by making largely for stock until trade revives, I think I can see my way to I keep you working, provided you are willing to accept a small reduction in wages until conditions improve again.
I I am going to lose money on the deal, but I am prepared to do that if you are I willing to do your share.”
He then threw open the question for discussion, and some desultory talk I followed. Evidently the people were wanting a lead from some quarter. What was his surprise when the Englishman j whom he thought the centre of disturbance arose and said:
“Look here, fellows, I’ve been here j when the boss has cut our wages twice.
I Each time he said he’d put them back as soon as conditions would Jet him. Each time he’s kept his word without our asking him. I believe he’s speaking the truth now, and you can do what you like—I’m off back to work.”
They followed, and Birge kept them working when other plants around them were shut down—all of which shows another angle to common-sense, and that I is to know when to be frank with people 1 about your difficulties.
In 1906, the time for expansion had arrived. The Canada Screw Company was well established, and consolidation of competitive interests seemed desirable. The result was that the Ontario Tack Company was merged with his own company, and thus his career of consolidation began. The merger was successful, business developed, and the way was pointed to the greater merger of 1910 when the Steel Company of Canada was formed by merging fourteen industrial plants, of which the enlarged Canada Screw Company was one. The efficiency which this merger brought into being was tested—as was that of all industrial institutions in the Empire—when the war started four years later, and the success of that efficiency was evident for anyone to see who chose to use his eyes. Mr. Birge was elected vice-president of this larger company, and thus kept his touch on the manufacturing end of business which he had entered a generation before.
His increasing influence in business and finance brought about his election as director of the Bank of Hamilton, and on the death of Sir John Hendrie, some months ago, he succeeded to the presidency. His capacity for amalgamations was again brought into play, as was shown by the speedy announcement of the merger of that bank with the Bank of Commerce, and on terms apparently popular with both parties. There is no failure of amalgamation to mar his record.
There is an old saying that it is the busiest men who find time for other and outside work. Mr. Birge is an example of the truth of this, for while the record as given is enough to have kept the average man busy for a long lifetime, it covers only a part of his activities. He was one of the founders of an iron furnace company and of a trust company; vice-president of a power and transmission company; director of companies too numerous to mention, and past president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.
Patriotic Fund Activities
TAKE a look at the man in his nine years’ work as head of the Hamilton Patriotic Fund, and see the same diligence and “common-sense” which he applied to his personal affairs. The fund was closed out on June 30 of this year, after handling more than $2,200,000. There was no real criticism of his management of the fund during the whole of that period. We live to-day in a simon-pure democracy in which we all claim the right to throw bricks at our neighbor when he is doing something for nothing, and the absence of real criticism of the Hamilton Patriotic Fund is a mighty big tribute to Cyrus Birge’s personality.
However, there was some criticism, and we may as well be quite honest about it. Some good ladies of Hamilton considered that the allowances to soldiers’ wives were too generous, and allowed them to live in better “style” than when their hubbies were at home. Mr. Birge heard of this, and used his usual method for clearing up the difficulty—he called a meeting. Supported by only one male companion (the secretary of the fund) he summoned the women of Hamilton to a conclave, and faced the music. It must have taken some courage to have faced those ladies at that time when all nerves were stretched to the breaking point through the long-drawn out war, and when the simplest things could be viewed in a perspective which might lead to grave misunderstandings and injustices. However, he told the ladies quite definitely that in his opinion these women were not to be kept down to any pre-war standard of living, but were going to receive a square deal, regardless of their former circumstances. This, coming from the man who was the largest individual subscriber to the fund in the city, was very effective, and the soldiers’ wives got their allowances without reduction. It is another proof of the saying that our successful men have the biggest hearts, the broadest attitudes and the most generous dispositions in spite of their cold exteriors.
At the time of the influenza epidemic, 1918, when the hospitals were overcrowded, the Hamilton and Wentworth Patriotic Association, of which he was president, established the only patriotic fund hospital in Canada. More than a hundred patients were treated, and only two died. The value of this work was
recognized when they received from the I Duke of Devonshire an autographed j vellum certificate, the only one of its kind presented in Canada. Officials ! estimate that he personally signed fourfifths of the 111,638 cheques issued. (If this sounds easy, try signing your name | for 100 times, and then multiply that labor by 880 times.) Before every j campaign for funds, he dropped other interests for about a month, in order to [ give his whole time—far into the night i —to the work—a record which it would \ be hard to beat.
The same generous and practical j attitude has been shown in other interests, i It is a fair statement to say that his hobby is his church, and as a lifelong | Methodist, he has a natural interest in Victoria College, of which he was a member of the Board of Regents. When that institution needed a new library | building, he donated $50,000 to it, j Andrew Carnegie giving the other half of the cost.
If a man has carried through a long life the motto of “common-sense,” it is bound to break out in different ways, and C. A. Birge is no exception to the rule. He has been a delegate to the general conference of his church for nearly forty years. He is known there as a man who seldom speaks, but when he does speak, he says something—a gift I which many of our spell-binders might try to cultivate—and in his matter-offact stand on public questions he seems to wear the mantle of the late Edward Gurney, who is well remembered as “jumping heavily” on those good people [ who tried to measure everyone with j their own yardstick. In all the fights for relaxing rules on such matters as smoking and dancing, in which the Methodist Church has been regarded as very strict, Birge has been consistently on the side of toleration, and in this connection there is a story which is worth repeating;
Everyone knows how big conferences are run: detail matters are referred to sub-committees for consideration, these committees present recommendations, and the matters go through with little trouble. On one occasion at the Methodist Conference, a sub-committee which had more politics than horse-sense presented a report condemning demon rum, and 'linking tobacco up with it as being equally worthy of the ban. The report was moved and seconded, and seemed to be sailing through—as these things often do in democratic organizations— with this little joker in it, committing the whole Methodist Church to an extreme and irrational policy, when Cyrus Birge arose and made a few remarks, as follows:
“A certain churchman who liked his liquor went to church one Sunday when he was a little the worse for wear. During the sermon, the minister warmed up to his subject and thundered—‘Let the drunkard stand up.’ The hero of the story looked up with surprise, failed to realize that the command was only pulpit rhetoric, and thought he should do as he was told. He thereupon stag| gered to his feet and said ‘Yes, parson, j I’m here all right.’ When the minister j got over the shock of this unexpected answer, he again warmed up to his subject and shouted, ‘Let the hypocrite stand up.’ There was a dramatic pause j —a silence—broken only when the old toper leaned forward to a deacon sitting | in front of him and said audibly, ‘I stood up when he wanted me. Get up, John, he’s asking for you now.’ ”
The general conference looked solemn; it took some nerve to tell a story like that in front of such pillars of Methodism as Dr. S. D. Chown and Dr. Albert Carman, but once it was told human nature proved too strong for continued solemnity, and the conference rocked with laughter. When silence was restored, j Birge drove home the moral. He took from his pocket a pipe which showed heavy use, held it up, and said:
“Now, I’m on my feet. This is mine, and I use it. I have never beaten my wife through use of this, but I understand men have beaten their wives through drink. I believe that little children have suffered through use of drink by their parents, but my children have never suffered through my use of this. People have been killed, and robbed, through the use of drink, but I | have never killed or robbed anyone through this. Why then do you class these two things, tobacco and drink, I
as being equally evil when there is no parallel?”
That story, and its common-sense application, killed the “joker” in the resolution.
In his own church, Mr. Birge is a member of the board of trustees; he has put in about 25 years as a Sunday School superintendent, and chairman of music committees, and has a just pride in his knowledge of good church music. While at Wesley Church he followed a progressive policy in these offices, obtained the services of the best soloist of that day in Hamilton, and introduced the popular kind of singing into the Sunday School.
As is to be expected from a practical businessman of the type he has proven himself to be, he disapproves of advanced social ideas being preached from the pulpit, and is sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that the business of the church is to teach practical Christianity, and not to dabble in social stunts and politics.
His advice to young Canadians is simple and forceful; “Don’t watch the clock. Work, and finish the job. Make your product as perfect as possible.”
Simple, of course, but so is the cause of his personal success already quoted: “Common-sense, hard thinking, and hard work,” and, after all, all the big things in life are fundamentally simple.