From Failure to Fortune in Fish
From Halifax, Arthur Boutilier is shipping millions of pounds of fish to inland Canada, to the United States, to Britain, and even to Hawaii and Mexico. He used his reverses as stepping stones, and achieved success by revolutionizing an industry.
W. A . IRWIN
IF YOU’LL read this story, I’ll wager that next time you look a codfish in the eye you’ll think of Arthur Boutilier, fishman extraordinary of Canada’s Atlantic coast.
Not that this is a truly tall fish yarn.
Far from it, although it must be admitted in the interests of veracity that last year Boutilier had a hand in the capture of something like 35,000,000 pounds of kicking cod and sundry related brethren of the deep. Furthermore, he has done more to keep the codfish abreast of the times, commercially speaking, than any other individual in Nova Scotia. In the process, he has managed to build up a business that is now on the verge of a $2,000,000 annual turnover, and this, despite the affliction of two financial crashes, either one of which would have sent a lesser man scurrying for cover.
Being an incorrigible visionary, he’s a piscatorial revolutionist, and yet his feet are so firmly on the ground that he has expanded his business to the point where its ramifications extend throughout North America to Hawaii in mid-Pacific, and to Great Britain and Germany at the other extreme.
At one time he was convinced he was called to the clerical cloth. To day, one of his chief delights is the fun he gets out of juggling fish prices for half a continent at a moment’s notice. Judged by the standards of the market-place, he’s as hard-headed as one of his Norman ancestry ought to be, and yet, if you catch him off his beaten track, you’ll probably find him seeking relaxation in the abstractions of Oscar Wilde’s ‘De Profundis.’
Altogether, he’s a remarkable individual, this Boutilier; a striking example of what Nova Scotia can do for a man and of what a man can do for Nova Scotia.
Down in Halifax, his home city, they scarcely know whether to applaud his successes, or waggle their heads over his failures. For one thing, he has a habit of jolting periodically his fellow citizens’ sense of the proprieties.
Only last summer he set the entire Maritimes a-tittering by marching into the storied chamber in the Province Building in which the Duncan Commission was sitting, with a box of fish under each arm. He appeared before that august body, he explained, to register a protest against a little difficulty connected with transportatio n. Good dead fish was one thing, but very dead fish was another. Owing to the lethargy of a certain common carrier, some of his good dead fish were being subjected unnecessarily to the perils of disintegration. As olfactory evidence of his contention, he begged to present for examination by the Commission, Exhibit A, namely, two boxes of very dead fish and bang went the boxes on the table before the astonished commissioners. Under the circumstances, the banging was quite unnecessary, for Exhibit A smelled the misfortunes of neglected fish to high Heaven.
Boutilier proved his point.
A Practical Visionary
/\ND who is Boutilier? To trespass on the chaste language of “Who’s Who,” Arthur Boutilier, Esquire, is president and general manager of the National Fish Company, of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Recently he was honored by election to the presidency of the Fisheries Association of Canada. But to the layman that means next to nothing.
To get any real idea of the man behind the name you will have to do as I did and clump your way over the cobbles that give Water Street, Halifax, a feeling of old worldliness: search out a dingy and muddy alley that apparently leads nowhere but to a pile of pickled herring barrels and the eastern edge of North America, and gasp when, without warning, you suddenly find yourself shunted through an inconspicuous entry into a modern business office. From the outside it looks like all the other squat, wharf-side buildings of the waterfront, but within is that rattle of typewriters and clatter of adding machines which nowadays is commonly accepted as a sign of commercial progress. Presently, you’ll find yourself in a bit of an office face to face with the bundle of dynamic energy that is Arthur Boutilier.
Even when he’s seated you sense the man of action. You see it in the quick turn of his head, in the quicker flash of keen, dark eyes. His stocky figure gives one the impression of suppressed movement, the impression that one gets when watching a runner on his mark. For all its square-set firmness, his face bespeaks a near-Gallic
volatility, but determination and steadfastness are writ large in the lines of the strongly molded chin. And yet he’s not all action, for if you take him away from the clatter of a trawler’s gear—they were unloading ton after ton of cod and haddock not more than eighty feet from his office window the day I was there—and plant him
down by his own hearth-side, you may get a glimpse into the mind of a visionary who sees clearly when other men are beset by a fog of doubt— a visionary who has introduced so many new-fangled notions into the fishing business that he has created practically a new industry, within the old.
So far as I could find out, he has always been one jump ahead of the game, and therein lies the strength which has been his weakness—ability to see beyond the horizon and courage to risk himself and his business on the accuracy of his vision. His reaching after the goal beyond immediate grasp more than once has brought him to the verge of disaster and, for years, all the waterfront croakers of Halifax have been shaking their heads and muttering his downfall but, for all their croaking and for all his temerity, he has made an astonishing commercial success out of playing Moses and Joshua to the children of the Nova Scotia fisheries.
“I Had to Dig in And Do What I Could”
THE beginnings are soon told. Back in 1750, George Boutilier, Jersey Islander, great-great-great grandfather of the present head of the house, turned his back on his native shores and sailed into the setting sun on the pioneer’s quest. Nova Scotia claimed him, and, for a hundred and seventy-five years, succeeding generations of Boutiliers have thrived on the salt se^ air of the peninsula province.
Arthur Boutilier first saw the light of day at French Village, on St. Margaret’s Bay, not far from Halifax.
Boutilier pere owned and operated a sawmill. He had been moderately successful, but lumbering in Nova Scotia was on the decline, and when young Boutilier was six, the family moved to Halifax, where the father found employment as a butcher’s foreman and the youngster proceeded to go to school and raise the devil.
“I’m afraid they couldn’t do much with me,” said the boy grown man, when I asked him if he remembered. “They tried hard for six years and then gave it up as a bad job and took me out of school. I went to work in my father’s shop, and, although I managed to hold my job, I’ll not say that I was a model butcher’s boy.”
Then there occurred one of those events which have determined many a man’s story. On a Sunday not far from his fifteenth birthday, young Boutilier went to church. It is to be presumed that this in itself was not particularly unusual, but the results on this occasion were. Rev. Dyson Hague, now of Toronto, happened to be in the pulpit, and his sermon fired young Boutilier with a new and, till then, unheard of ambition in the Boutilier household.
“I’ll never forget that day as long as I live,” Boutilier told me. “I went home filled with new ideas about making something of myself. I was determined that I would be a minister, and I began to read everything I could lay my hands on.”
More than that, he began to study as furiously as formerly he had raised the devil. For a time he went on working by day and studying at night under the tutorship of Jotham Logan, now a teacher in the Halifax Academy. Ultimately, he studied his way into High School where, despite the handicap of his age, he made rapid progress. Then, when he was eighteen, another crisis developed. He bad his heart set on college, but the Boutilier household was a large one and its financing was becoming increasingly difficult. There was but one thing to do, and the youth did it. He forgot college and went to work. As chance would have it, Fader and Company, a firm of Halifax fish merchants, were his first employers, and Boutilier became a bookkeeper.
“What about the ministry?”
The man at the other side of the fireplace was silent for a moment, and then he poked the blaze meditatively. “There was nothing else for it. The old man was getting tired, I could see that. It was too much. Getting old, too, so I had to dig in and do what I could.”
That was in 1893. For the next five years Boutilier, neophyte in the fresh fish business, went on doing “what he could” to such good purpose that when the senior member of the Fader firm died at the end of that period, he was able to buy out the other partners and launch out for himself.
The Ionoclast Comes a Cropper
FROM the outset he was an enthusiast full of ideas for the advancement of the fresh fish industry. During his apprenticeship with the Fader people he had spent what holidays he could get poking around the fish wharves of Boston and Gloucester, always on the lookout for improved methods of handling fish.
The day was to come when Gloucester was to come to Boutilier for new ideas, but when he took over the business it was but a small affair. The fish were brought to the dock by ’longshore fishermen in rowboats and small sailboats, and, often as not, Boutilier himself and his small staff would tramp the town with boxes of fish under their arms, peddling their wares.
Throughout the fish trade generally, dried fish was accepted as the staple of the fishing industry. Dried fish could be kept in store, and there was always a steady supply to meet the demands of the market. Futile to hope to build up a big trade in fresh fish, for there was no certainty of a steady supply, it was argued. Any storm which blew up out of Hatteras might keep the shore fisherman off the fishing grounds for a week at a time. Then where would your market be, with no fish to supply it, even granted that there was any market to be found?
So it ran, but, with experience, there had come to Boutilier the conviction that there were markets and that the fish could be got to supply them. He began to talk of selling fresh Atlantic fish in Central Canada. Old timers with fifty years’ experience behind them laughed at his folly, but, little by little, he began to work his ideas out in practice. As the old timers predicted, he had his troubles. The ice which was designed to carry his product fresh to the Montreal consumer persisted in melting more rapidly than was seemly. Fish which left Halifax as ‘fresh’ landed at its destination decided otherwise. Consumers were indignant and the market touchy. But Boutilier kept everlastingly at it, improving his methods of packing, jabbing at transportation officials in the effort to convince them that more speed was essential, and trying to ensure a steady supply of fresh fish at his own warehouse.
Continued on page 50
From Failure to Fortune in Fish
Continued, from page 16
Came a day, after two years of plodding, when a representative of a large Central Canadian concern appeared at the Boutilier office in Halifax with an order so large that it made the head of the firm whoop with joy. The fish were found and delivered at the railhead. And then—smash!
Before the shipment could reach its destination, the bottom dropped out of the market, and, when it did arrive, the consignee refused to accept delivery. Boutilier, in his eagerness, had neglected to forestall himself against this contingency, and the entire shipment was a total loss. The blow was more than the small business could stand, and its owner found himself bankrupt over night.
“When I finally discovered where I stood,” he explained, “I was $13,000 poorer. It was a hard experience, but I know now it was worth it. It was my first lesson, and after that I had to see the money before I parted with my goods. People called it ‘failure,’ but . . . yes . . . I think it was a good thing.”
The creditors got ten cents on the dollar out of the settlement, and a week later Boutilier was in business again, under his wife’s name. Although not legally bound to do so, within three years he had reimbursed his creditors in full for their losses.
Boutilier’s First Come. Back
THIS demonstration of the quality of the stuff that was in the young fish merchant was so convincing that only a comparatively short period elapsed before he was able to secure the backing necessary for a new and still more ambitious project—the building of a cold storage plant. Operating under the name of the Halifax Cold Storage Company, Boutilier then proceeded to shock the trade by proving that frozen fish could find a ready market at long distances from the
point of origin. It wasn’t done overnight ; the consumer had to be educated to the use of the frozen product, and the dealers had to be convinced that it could be handled profitably, but ultimately he succeeded to the point where he was able to swing a still further expansion of the business.
To make a long story short, outside capital came in, and the North Atlantic Fisheries came into being, with Boutilier as president and general manager.
Outside capital, however, has its drawbacks, as Boutilier discovered at the outbreak of war in 1914. The directors of the North Atlantic were so disturbed by the unsettled state of the market following the commencement of hostilities that they deemed retrenchment to be imperative. As a result, they voted to discontinue fishing operations and to concentrate on the cold storage end of the business. As might be expected, Boutilier bitterly opposed what, to him, appeared to be a retrograde step. Finally, the general manager and the directors agreed to disagree, and the former secured a release from his contract. The next day he made still another start in the fresh fish business under the name of the National Fish Company.
That was twelve years ago.
To-day, the National Fish Company operates its own fishing fleet—four trawlers and a like number of collecting vessels. It owns two fish handling plants, one at Halifax and the other at Hawkesbury, on the Straits of Canso. Its assets total $750,000, and its annual payroll more than $500,000. Last year it handled 35,000,000 pounds of fish. Its 20,000 000 pounds of finished product finds sale in Canada, the United States and Europe. Seme of its fish goes down into Mexico; some to Hawaii. And, despite the crash of 1921, of which more later, the National Fish Company is still Arthur Boutilier.
How did he do it? I don’t know, neither does anybody else but the point is—he did it.
Two Revolutionary Innovations
1 PURPOSELY abridged the story of the two earlier companies in order more quickly to reach the latter days of the Boutilier progression but, for anything like intelligent understanding of that progression, one must go back to two of his earlier innovations—the trawler and the filet. Continued ƒrom page Jf6 Away back in the earlier 1900’s, Boutilier upset the decorum of the Nova Scotia fisheries and brought down a storm of ridicule on his head by assuming the role of godfather to the first trawlers to operate in Canadian waters. For the sake of the uninitiated, it might be explained that the steam trawler is to the fishing business what the steam shovel is to the excavating business. Furthermore, it can operate in weather that would make the fireman of a steam shovel bank his fires in disgust. Boutilier early realized what this would mean in terms of a steady supply of his raw material, summer and winter, and began to experiment accordingly. At the outset his critics had the time of their lives, for the experiment was a dismal failure. Trawling is both an art and a science, and its successful practice proved a baffling problem to the first Canadians who tackled it. But Boutilier refused be beaten, and he finally solved the cU...culty by importing both crews and ships from the famous fleet which operates out of Grimsby, England. This expedient served until the outbreak of the war, by which time the experience of the Canadians was such that they were able to take over business when the Grimsby men were recalled to their home port. Now the trawler is such an important cog in the mechanism of our east coast fisheries that this recital reads like ancient history.
Continued on page 48
Then, there was the little matter of the filet, or boneless fish, a seemingly unimportant detail, but one which has had almost as much to do with the remarkable growth of the fresh fish business as has the trawler. Here, again, Boutilier’s reasoning was characteristically logical. Why, he asked himself, should the consumer, fifteen hundred miles inland, pay freight on skin and bones when skin and bones inevitably found their way to the garbage pail? Why not lighten the garbage-man’s load and, incidentally, make fish a more attractive food in the eyes of the housewife? Nowadays, when filets are piled high on every fishmonger’s ice tables the proposition seems simple enough, but it took a Boutilier to take the first bone out. He initiated fileting on a commercial scale in 1911, and he was first in the field on the Atlantic coast—Canadian and American. Since then, the process has been generally adopted, but be it recorded to the credit of Canadian enterprise that when Boston and Gloucester wanted to learn the secret of the trick they had to come to Boutilier.
Similarly with another innovation in deep sea fishing—the use of the wireless. Since 1916 all the Boutilier trawlers have been fitted with wireless, and Boutilier to-day knows the extent of any given catch long before his ships reach port. The importance of that knowledge in the light of the effect it may have on price is obvious to anyone who knows how the gullible will swallow the merest shadow of a tip on the stock market.
Enter the German ‘Sub.'
ONE might think that any man who applied his brains to his business as industriously as Boutilier has, might reasonably expect continuous commercial prosperity, but Boutilier’s most devastating ordeal was still to come. Largely because of the improved methods adopted by its origyiator, the National Fish Company made rapid headway during the war period. Then came the fateful day in August, 1918, when his one trawler, ill-named “Triumph,” fell a victim to a German submarine seventy miles off the port of Halifax. The blow was a hard one, but within a short time Boutilier had made himself the owner of not one, but two new trawlers. Continued expansion of the business at first seemed to warrant the heavy expenditure involved, but with the slump of 1920-21 came disaster. The banks began to press for money. Boutilier went up to Montreal to fight for a few months of grace, but his plea fell on deaf ears, and, with debts of $232,000 against it, the National Fish Company went to the wall. Halifax thought Boutilier was finished. But Halifax did not know its Boutilier.
On February 21, 1921, the day after a tentative settlement was reached with the creditors, Boutilier was again in the fish business, again operating under his wife's name. That morning a ship came into port with 12,000 halibut on board. Boutilier had a thousand dollars which he
had managed to borrow from a friend. He went down to the dock, determined to buy that shipload of halibut. The fisherman wanted $2,000 for the lot.
“Very good,” said Boutilier, "here’s a thousand dollars down and I’ll give you the rest this afternoon.”
The offer was accepted and ‘that crazyman,’ to use the phrase that was then current along the waterfront, rushed uptown to sell his halibut. Amazingly enough, he did that very thing, and before nightfall he had paid the balance owing on the fish and cleared a profit of $500.
Then followed eight months of hectic buying and selling of fish. Boutilier stilt had his market connections, but, as might be expected, the banks were through with one whom they regarded as a ‘plunger ' How to find the money? That was the question.
‘‘It was terrible,” Boutilier admits. “I’d go down to the office in the morning not knowing where I was going to find the money to pay my men. But I got it. A trust company here in Halifax gave me some of it—I had to pay two per cent, for ten days—but I got it. By October I was $43,000 ahead.”
I expressed amazement.
“In one way it was easy. Everybody else was scared stiff, and I simply went out and bought all the fish in sight. There wasn’t any competition. The others simply quit cold and I took their business Many’s the time I left this house on Monday morning and did not leave the office until Saturday night—slept on the counter—but I saved the business.” Ultimately the creditors were persuaded to accept an issue of $245,000 of preferred stock in lieu of their claims, the banks came around to a different point of view, and within four years the credit of the concern was such that it was possible to double the business.
NOT that the business was like Topsy.
It took more than just growing to keep it going. Boutilier had the vision to see how the demand for fresh fish would increase of its ow-n momentum once the industry was thoroughly established, and the courage to follow that vision, but it took more than courage. For instance: Three years ago he conceived the idea that fileted fish ought to be sold to the consumer in package form. With the cooperation of a firm of envelope makers in Toronto, he began to experiment to find a paper container that would stand up under contact with fresh fish. Their first difficulty was to find the paper. Ultimately they found it in a species of parchment. Then they were at a loss to find a glue that would hold the containers together. All the ordinary glues refused to oblige, but eventually an adhesive was discovered that proved satisfactory. Then they had trouble in getting the flabby filets into the envelopes without mauling both the envelope and the fish. After puzzling over this problem for weeks, Boutilier, himself, devised a peculiarly shaped shovel that does the trick as neatly as you please. Having solved the mechanical difficulties, he dressed his envelopes up with his trademark, added directions for cooking, and tried the experiment out on some of the larger Canadian and United States markets. The innovation was an instantaneous hit, and in the last two years has played a major part in the increasing of the sales in the United States to millions of pounds annually.
Incidentally, some of Boutilier’s competitors are still looking for that shovel.
It’s worth noting, too, that here’s a case where the tariff of two and one-half cents a pound, or thereabouts, imposed on fish entering the United States, failed to function as it was designed to function. Boutilier’s fish were so attractive in their new dress that they jumped the tariff wall without noticing it, and proceeded to sell themselves in competition with the protected fish of Boston and Gloucester, in a dozen big centres of the United States. Last year, for example, thirty carloads went to one south-western city alone. Other shipments went straight through to Los Angeles and from there part of their load went down into Mexico and out over the Pacific to Hawaii."
It Takes Brains But it Works
ONE could go on multiplying evidences of Boutilier's almost uncanny foresightedness but here’s another instance that will have to su‘fice: Last year part of the cargo of a certain ship sailing out of Halifax for the Old Country consisted of two shipments of fresh fish, one from the Boutilier plant and the other from the plant of one of his competitors. On arrival on the other side, the competitor’s fish could not find a market, and the Boutilier fish were sold for eleven cents a pound. The secret? Boutilier had insulated his boxes with a double layer of paper between which was special insulating compound. As a result, the ice in the Boutilier boxes did its duty, while the ice in the other boxes succumbed to the temptations of a long sea voyage.
It might appear that carrying fish to England would prove a profitless task, but Boutilier claims that the marketfor Canadian fresh fish is capable of indefinite expansion in the old country, given proper transportation facilities and proper marketing methods. If some government wants to do its bit for the Maritime fish industry, there’s a hint that will bear looking into. Boutilier managed to dispose of more than a few hundred pounds in the Old Country last year and, as he says, “we didn’t scratch the market.”
Not that Boutilier claims that the fishj ing industry should depend on govern| ments for its success. He’s a living proof of the aphorism that Providence helps him who helps himseif. Consider, for instance, j the energy with which he has attacked the 1 problem of the utilization of the by-products of the fishing industry. Shortly after the war he began to ruminate on the skin and bone which he was saving from the garbage collector. After considerable search he discovered in Europe a process : for the turning of these waste products and other fish offal into a form of stock food known as fish meal. Whereupon he decided that he would become a manufacturer of fish meal, and, to-day, his fish meal plant is turning out many tons of meal a month which finds a ready sale ¡ in Europe where it is quoted at $85 a ton. There are one or two plants of a similar nature south of the international boundary on the Atlantic seaboard, and a similar process has been utilized in British Columbia, but Boutilier’s is still the only fish meal plant in the Maritimes. And not only is he making money out of offal which others are throwing away or, at best, are using inefficiently as fertilizer. Most trawlers dump the non-commercial fish in their catch at sea, the waste usually running anywhere from a quarter to a third of the catch. On the day that I was at the plant, one of the Boutilier trawlers was in port with 160,000 pounds of commercial fish and 80,000 pounds of fish which were not saleable. The latter was destined for the fish meal plant to swell the revenue which Boutilier draws from European stock farmers.
In the above instance a market lay ready to hand, but Boutilier is not one of those Maritimers who raise the plaint of ‘no markets.’ Where there’s no market he, speaking literally, goes out and creates one. Four years ago, he started an advertising campaign by staging a competition to secure the best fish recipes. Over six thousand Maritime housewives responded. Then he secured the services of a trained dietitian, gave her a good salary, and told her to go out among the people of the Maritime Provinces and show them how to cook fish. The extent to which she succeeded is shown by the fact that in Halifax alone the consumption of fish increased by fifty per cent. The experiment proved so successful that the demonstrator became a permanent member of the Boutilier organization. At the moment she’s on her way across the continent, showing Canadians how to cook fish so that it will taste like fish.
Some iconoclast might argue that such a method of advertising is calculated to help Boutilier’s competitors as much as it will help Boutilier. But Boutilier doesn’t look at it that way. “The demonstrations are costing $20,000 a year, but I consider it money well spent,” he said, when I raised the point. “The thing to do is to get people to eat more fish, and to do that you’ve got to show people how to cook fish properly. When it comes to selling fish I’m quite prepared to take my chances with the next man.”
The Evangel of the Fishing Industry
Boutilier is more than an extraordinarily successful fish merchant. He’s the evangel of the Maritime fishing industry. Others agree that he catches fish, buys fish, sells fish, eats fish, talks fish and thinks fish. Personally, Pm convinced that if his subconscious mind is working he dreams fish. And, whether or not one likes fish, one can’t help liking Boutilier.
He is the kind of man who takes a saddle horse through Point Pleasant at six-thirty of a winter’s morning in the teeth of a North Atlantic gale and enjoys it. And if you catch him in a confiding mood, he’ll admit that he has a gymnasium stowed away in one of the upper corners of his home. “Got to work to keep fit,” he says. “Can’t work unless you keep fit.”
Ignoring fish and fitness, he has two hobbies—his family and Nova Scotia. I have still a vivid recollection of his short stocky figure pacing excitedly across his study floor in the flickering light of a dying fire. “It’s the finest country God ever created. There’s no need for anybody to leave it if they’ll work . . work. I’d rather lose a hundred thousand dollars than see one of my boys go. They say it’s a hard climate. Bah”—clenched fingers beat a tattoo on their owner’s chest—“this country breeds men . real men.”
Judging by the specimen, I would say he’s right.