THE BUSINESS OF TRUTH
I IMAGINE that the first typewriter and adding-machine salesmen had a tough time convincing George Caverhill that their methods were superior to those of the clerks who for decades had kept tab on the business with pen and mental arithmetic. That they finally did so is proved by the presence to-day in the office of typewriters and addingmachines. But it is possible that Mr. Caverhill harbors a secret scorn of them. Certainly he holds no enthusiasm for them.
Even is he shy of advertising his business in the manner regarded as modern. The individuality and modesty of the Caverhill Block may be called to witness this, and, in the opinion of George Caverhill, what is inside it needs no ballyhooing.
On St. Peter Street, Montreal (the new blue and white enamelled numbers are 451455) there stands a gray stone building of sedate and venerable appearance. It has stood there since 1865.
The street, like most of the streets in that city’s
wholesale district, is narrow. The average person who hurries along its strip of pavement will pass the pile with nothing more than a casual glance in its direction. And yet it is a building that architects and builders have tried to duplicate in other cities, always without success. To find the reason why, one must walk a little way down an intersecting street in order to obtain the full perspective. There it is that the beauty of the design, the superb hand-carving that adorns it, may be seen.
It is a Dickensian sort of building, with its heavily scrolled facade, its old-fashioned windows flanked by symmetrically hand-wrought columns, with its massive wooden doors studded with carved iron. In the language of buildings it seems to say: “There’s a lot of substantial stuff in me. And no nonsense about the business I house.”
It bears no glaring signs. Behind the pane of a lower window is an old-fashioned, inconspicuous screen bearing in faded gilt letters the inscription: “Caverhill, Learmont and Company.” That is the business which built it as a home. It is known as the Caverhill Block, yet even that statement should be qualified in respect to the newer generation. Recently a well-known member of the Montreal Board of Trade, passing down St. Peter Street, was accosted by a young man who said:
“Can you tell me where in blazes is Caverhill’s store? I could have sworn it was along here somewhere, but I’m blessed if I can find it, and I’ve walked back and forth from Notre Dame to St. Paul Street half a dozen times.”
And yet to find out what the name Caverhill signifies it is necessary only to ask any hardware man between Halifax and Vancouver. He may tell you incidentally that the Caverhill wholesale hardware business is the oldest of its kind in Canada, and possibly the largest. He is certain to tell you that Caverhill and straight dealing are synonymous terms.
There is no motto above the door of the Caverhill Block, there being nothing fanciful about the Caverhills. But if ever one were contemplated, it would be one word: Truth. For that word was the foundation of the Caverhill business.
A sketch of any business is a sketch of personality. In the case of the Caverhills it is a sketch embracing nearly one hundred years and three generations in the same business, and yet the outlines are the same in their essentials. In 1828 an impression of Thomas Caverhill would have read pretty much the same as an
Business virility and business mortality are interesting studies. Why do some firms last for a century and more and others are almost as phantom as “ships that pass in the night”? This sketch of the three Caverhills—the men and the business—gives one pellucid explanation.
impression of his sons, Thomas and John, in 1865, and of his grandson, George, in 1925. And should some future scribe put G. Rutherfurd Caverhill on paper, there is reason for the belief that a description of his main characteristics would coincide with those of his father, George.
Before I telephoned George Caverhill, the present head of Caverhill, Learmont and Company, to ask for an interview, I looked him up in a business Who's Who. It gave the year of his birth as 1858. So it was With the self-conjured vision of an old man of sixty-seven before me that I enquired of the switchboard operator whether it was Mr. George who was in active charge of the business, or Mr. G.
Rutherfurd Caverhill, his son. The operator seemed astonished at the question.
“Mr. George, to be sure!” she said.
When I called on Mr. George next day there was no wondering at the “to be sure.” He was at his desk at nine o’clock sharp, a big, broad-shouldered, burly man of some 250 pounds (Heaven forbid I should be far astray), radiant with health and possessing all the physical attributes of a first-class full-back. Sir William Osier would never have uttered his famous (or apocryphal) line about a man being ready for chloroform at sixty if he could have seen George Caverhill at sixty-seven.
Interviewing Mr. Caverhill is no job for a romancer.
He regards the hardware business asa matter of agate, aluminum and' iron facts about which no one can be effusive. And, so far as he is concerned, that is all there is to it. To fit a bromide to him, he is “oneof the old school.” And no appraisal of him can be made unless one first of all turns back the clock. To bein keeping, it should be a grandfather clock, sturdy and deliberate.
In the year 1828, then,, therearrived in Canada a hard-headed Scotchman, by name Thomas Caver-hill, and his family. There were two sons, Thomas and John. The head of the family having a taste for farming, they settled on an island in the Ottawa River. For* years it was Caverhill Island. To-day it is known as Jones Iderd. Thomas Caverhill worked his land with all the application that is the national trait of his race, and he prospered. The call of the soil sounded notstrongly to his boys, however. Together they shared visions of a merchant career.
From that farm surrounded by the Ottawa River came Thomas and John Caverhill to the little town of Beauharnois on the banks of the St. Lawrence where it is wide enough to be known as Lake St. Louis. There, in the year 1841, they opened a general átore. Thomae had married. His wife was born in the province of Quebec, but her name was Elizabeth Speirs Buchanan, and that leaves no question as to her blood. From the land North of the Tweed her father had come in 1818.
The business acumen of the Caverhill brothers may be judged from the fact that from that village store in Beauharnois they developed a business that warranted the opening of branches in Chateauguay, Howiek, St. Martine and Huntingdon. And at this stage of the career of Thomas and John Caverhill there entered one of those odd twists of fortune which add zest to the study of trade.
A Foundation of Peas
'T'HEIR dealings largely were with the farmers of the neighboring countryside, and to them came the same problem that has confronted traders since the days of the Phoenicians. Their customers were not always able to settle in cash for goods received. But the French-Canadian farmers, while they might be short of cash, were not of the type that papers the house with unpaid bills. They offered to settle in kind, and the Caverhills were not the men to spurn honest effort. The soil of Quebec, then, as now, was a fecund progenitor of the lowly pea. Peas were the surplus asset of most tillers of the earth. And when the first farmer to do so offered peas in lieu of currency, little did he know that he
was helping to establish a wholesale hardware house that was to earn a reputation throughout the Dominion and across the seas.
The unknown’s peas were accepted and his bill receipted. The news spread. And from the four comers of that territory came bushels of peas, tons of peas, wagon-loads of peas. There seemed to be no end to the deluge of peas. And the Caverhills took counsel among themselves. There must be a market for peas. That market was overseas. Across the ocean they shipped a trial load. It sold.
Whereupon Thomas and John Caverhill filled a ship's hold full of peas and broke a record for trans-ocean carrying. And when that cargo was seid they shipped another one. From the steadily accruing profits on the Continued on page 36
Continued from page 26
little round vegetable there emerged the Caverhill business as it stands to-day.
In 1853, with the pea profits in the bank, Thomas and John Caverhill came to Montreal. They found a store situated on the old Custom House Square, and they looked about them for a man who knew the wholesale hardware business. Their choice was James Crathern, then working for the James Ferrier Company. Crathern was willing to join them. And in that year the nameplate of Crathern and Caverhill appeared.
In the meantime, Thomas Caverhill had been raising a family which ultimately numbered three girls and four boys. The fourth arrival was George, born at Beauharnois on October 18, 1858, and the subject proper of this article dismisses his childhood with the brief statement that he was educated at Montreal High School, at “Tassie’s” and at McGill University. “Tassie’s” was the Collegiate Institute at Galt which a headmaster of that name made famous for the quality of its product.
Thefirmof Crathernand Caverhill prospered from the start. It had one cardinal axiom laid down by its founders and ingrained in every employee. It was Square Dealing. It gained the confidence of every customer, great or small, and it served the businessasnocampaignof national advertising has ever done alone. Through the seventy-two years that have elapsed since the name of Caverhill first appeared on a Montreal building that axiom has been regarded as sacred. No Caverhill customer ever has been told he was wrong. That attitude has cost the firm money time and time again, but such losses have been trifling in comparison with the incalculable goodwill it has brought it.
One example will serve. A Montreal dealer recently sold two powerful jacks which he had ordered from Caverhill’s. The trucking company which purchased them, returned them to the dealer with the complaint that they were faulty. The dealer in turn reported the complaint to Caverhill’s, giving it as his opinion that the jacks had been improperly used. The evidence amply supported the dealer. Without a single word of protest, Caverhill's took back the jacks and supplied two new ones. On the deal they had lost. But they had earned the gratitude of the dealer and kept his customer satisfied.
There is another characteristic of the Caverhill firm that probably is unique in Canadian trading. Since 1841 never has the firm failed to take advantage of a cash discount. For nearly 85 years it has
paid cash for its goods. A little reflection will give to every man engaged in business a better idea of what that means than any paragraph of print could do. It means that the Caverhill business always has had ready money and thus has been able to save a bit on its bills by taking advantage on the discount. Buying is one thing. Selling is another, and whereas the Caverhills have paid cash always, not always have they received it. In short, the burden of “carrying” customers has been heavier than it would have been had the firm taken full advantage of the usual thirty, sixty or ninety days, or whatever it may be. But that is the Caverhill way—never owing a cent, no matter how much might be owed to them. It is a characteristic of which the Caverhills are proud. It is a policy that George Caverhill hopes the business always will be able to continue.
A Foundation of Truth
TEN years after Thomas and John Caverhill had arrived in Montreal ibe business of Crathern and Caverhill had outgrown its premises on Custom House Square. New quarters had to be sought. Then it wms that Thomas and John Caverhill decided to erect a building of their owm. Into the plans, as into everything else, they put their personality. The site was secured on St. Peter Street, and work begun, and as a small boy, George Caverhill w'as taken by his father to walk over the great wooden beams and to watch, stage by stage, the construction of the permanent home of a business which, even at that age, he w'as being taught to regard as his heritage. The Caverhill block was completed in 1865 and was at once hailed by architects and builders as one of the most beautiful examples of masonry in North America.
“Speaking of your father,” I said to Mr. George as he sat in the same office Thomas Caverhill occupied, at the same desk, in the same chair, “there must be one outstanding fact in your memory of him: some trait of character which was exemplified in the business he founded?” “There is,” said Mr. Caverhill. “Truth. He had a passion for truth. It was the biggest thing in his life, and he built up his business on it. He trained my brother Frank and me to take over that business, and his training was truth. And as long as the Caverhills are in business, that is their guide.”
Mr. Caverhill took out a photograph. “My father,” he said. “That tells you Continued on page 39
Continued, from page 36 ■as much about Thomas Caverhill as can be told.” The picture is reproduced with this article.
Two other memories of his father did Mr. Caverhill mention. He was a prognosticator of no mean order. In the ’70’s he was wont to predict that the •day was coming wrhen one would be able to leave 'Montreal in early daylight and arrive in England in time for supper. The conquest of the air has brought that dream almost to realization. Again, he had a theory that some day man would learn to control the ether waves of the atmosphere and communicate through the air. Marconi did it. Thomas Caverhill also had a prodigious memory. Without hesitation he could recite any popular verse of the Bible, Shakespeare ■or Robert Burns that might be asked for.
It was an understood point that at the ■age of eighteen George would decide whether he was going to continue at McGill and study for a profession or whether he was going to enter the hardware business. This appears to have been rather a matter of convention, for there is no evidence that doubt existed at any time as to what George Caverhill was goipg "to be. Nevertheless, on a day in 1876 Thomas Caverhill said to his son:
“Are you going to work or stay at college, George?”
“I shall be nineteen the day alter tomorrow, so I’ll start work when I’m eighteen,” said George.
The following day George Caverhill walked through the door of the Caverhill block to begin his study of the hard-ware business. There was no reluctance about his step. He cherished no dream of being a painter or an actor any more than as a schoolboy he had hoped to be an enginedriver or the captain of a ship. George Caverhill was going into the hardware business because always it had been taken for granted, both on his part and that of everybody concerned, that he would go into the hardware business. He started as a clerk, worked a time in this department and a time in that department, and in due course absorbed a knowledge of the trade that he never has ceased to cultivate.
The whole of the foregoing paragraph is applicable also to George’s brother, Frank.
IN JANUARY, 1882, Thomas and John Caverhill, the founders of the business, died within eight days of each other. Thomas was in Scotland, John in Nice. Two years later, in the settlement of the estate, George and Frank took over the “shelf goods” department. With them as partners they took two men who had been in the employ of the old firm since boyhood, J. B. Learmont and Henry Newman. Learmont’s name was included in the title of the new concern, Caverhill, Learmont and Company. The heavy goods department, however, remained under the old name of Crathern and Caverhill. In 1895 James Crathern withdrew, and Caverhill, Learmont and Company were in control of the entire business. As this article is being prepared for the press, I learn that Mr. Caverhill has bought out the interest of the Learmont estate.
From year to year the business of Caverhill and Learmont grew. It reached from coast to coast. It required large warehouses at Winnipeg and Vancouver. And with it grew that reputation for square dealing which the firm laid down as the first rule of all. Then came the boom in the West. Cities came into being, and, with them, hardware dealers. To the firm of Caverhill and Learmont the birth of localized competition in the West meant one of two things: Either
they could go after business with a zest that could only be secured by the resident presence there of a member of the firm, or they could leave the field to the local concerns which were beginning to spring up. They decided on the latter course. The warehouses, in Vancouver and Winnipeg, were closed in 1912, and Caverhill and Learmont withdrew from the West. From that time to date the firm’s territory has been from Ontario to the Atlantic seaboard. The supplying of the ever-increasing manufacturing establishments of the Province of Quebec alone has made up for the yielding of the western trade to the people of the West. To-day George Caverhill is the only
one of the firm of Caverhill, Learmont and Company still living. But he has a son, George Rutherfurd Caverhill, who at twenty-nine is being groomed for the day when his father decides to leave his desk. That son has done precisely what his father did before him—has learned the hardware business from the cellar floor up.
“Mr. Caverhill,” I said, “all the success of this business of yours isn’t due to the fact that your forebears built it. To quote the newspaper query, ‘To what do you attribute your success?’ ”
“I am always here,” replied Mr. Caverhill. “I am at the helm. I know everything that is going on. I don’t say that I work any harder than anyone else. As a matter of fact I don’t work half so hard as a whole lot of men. But I am here. I am here to be consulted, to advise and, when necessary, to order. And that’s the place where every man should be who wants to make a success of his business— at the helm. You remember the firm of Blank and Blank? When did it start to go back? When Blank got political aspirations and devoted more time to the platform than he did to his desk. And there was the firm of So-and-So and Company. It failed. Why? Because its head was seldom at his desk; always chasing around after this thing and that thing. No, if a man wants to make a success of any business he’s got to stick to it.”
“So your advice to any young chap would be to make up his mind as to what he means to be, get a job in that line, and hang on to it?”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Caverhill. “The trouble with a lot of young fellows just starting in life is that they never are quite sure what they want to be. They’re always wanting to try something else. They don’t stick.”
Sticking to “Old 89“
THE fault of not sticking certainly cannot be found under the Caverhill roof. Seldom does an employee leave. At work to-day are several members of the staff who have served the firm for half a century, and a great number have been there more than twenty years. One and all they have a pride in the business that is nothing short of inspirational. To them the Caverhill Block is what it is to George Caverhill—“Old 89.” The City Fathers may give way to newfangled ideas and renumber the blocks. They may tack up neat enamelled plates labelling their building 451-455. But it remains “Old 89.”
Every morning as he walks through the door, George Caverhill fingers the old brass latch. His old employees say that the touch of it never fails to thrill him. He walks through the display room,
through the old counting house ¿u.d into his private office, and, so far as environment is concerned, he might be Thomas Caverhill coming down to business. In his sanctum they have been laying a new piece of linoleum, and Mr. George doesn’t like it. From time to time suggestions have been made that this or the other piece of furniture be moved, or that picture shifted. But the changes are not made. After nearly half a century sticking to the hardware business, George Caverhill finds comfort in old associations.
In truth the firm of Caverhill is trading on a reputation. But it is a reputation that has been sedulously upheld from year to year, from generation to generation. And it is difficult to reduce it t„ terms of human interest. It simply is.
“Old 89” is the biggest thing in George Caverhill’s life, but it does not absorb all his interest or affection. They do not interfere with what goes on in that gray building on St. Peter Street, but he has other business interests. He has been president of the Board of Trade, and now is president of the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company and its subsidiary companies; a director of the Canada Steamships, of Canadian Cottons, Limited, of the Montreal Trust Company, and of the Bell Telephone Company.
Once out of the office he can put hardware out of his mind and enjoy other things. He is fond of all that is beautiful and symmetrical in nature—his garden at 84 Simpson Street, boasts a vast collection of perennials. He has traveled extensively, having visited practically every inhabited portion of the globe. In his younger days an ardent sailor, he still is connected with the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club, in addition to being a member of every leading club in Montreal. For many years he was internationally known as a breeder of Skye terriers. More than 300 prizes were won by his dogs, among which were numbered several of the finest examples of the breed ever seen. Lately, because of a variety of circumstances, Mr. Caverhill has had to abandon his kennels, to his keen regret.
Always he is eager to listen to a good yarn, and a little more eager to tell one. Had he not been bred in the hardware business he might have made a good novelist, for a jovial imagination and a knack of putting the plot over have combined in earning him a nickname that has stuck for over thirty years. To all his cronies George Caverhill is The Baron.
And then there is golf. Sometimes George Caverhill talks about the day when he is going to leave the helm of his business in order to give some serious thought to the perfection of approach shots. But it seems to this writer that his principal pastime for some time to come is going to be hardware.