1907—W. H.Coverdale dines on peanuts and an apple; 1909—he earns $100,000 a year; 1927—one of the highest paid executives in Canada
Brains and Nerve—Plus!
1907—W. H.Coverdale dines on peanuts and an apple; 1909—he earns $100,000 a year; 1927—one of the highest paid executives in Canada
ONE day in New York, not many years ago, a man stopped in front of a peanut vendor’s waggon on a side street off Broadway. He bought a five cent bag of peanuts and then his eye fell on some nice fresh looking apples.
"How much are they?” he asked the Italian.
"Two apples for a nickel. Good apples.”
The man fished three cents out of his pocket.
"Give me one,” he said.
The man’s name was Coverdale. The peanuts and the apple were his dinner. The three cent apple was an extravagance, for he was broke.
A few months later this W. H. Coverdale was earning $100,000 a year and he has never since earned less. To-day he is back home in Canada, president of the Canada Steamship Lines, head of a big financial house, and directing force of more enterprises than he can remember.
He is full of surprises. He became one of the foremost engineers on the continent, but he had no engineering training at school. And now, managing a multitude of affairs, he does it all for five months of the year from a farm on the banks of the St. Lawrence near Kingston. Ontario—along the road past the little house where he was born.
Here is a Canadian who, on the death of his father, was forced to emigrate to the United States, fought hard battles there, carved success out of failure, and now has come home to turn another failure .nto a great instrument of Canadian prosperity. What he has done is remarkable but his real story is how he has done it. In that is a tonic or every Canadian, a romance of relentless haid work and courageous independence and a demonstration that success is built not on circumstances but on inward qualities.
It was on the farm near Kingston that I found him. We walked on the terrace, unpretentious stone house behind, blue waters of the St. Lawrence in front whipped by a stiff evening breeze. It was a good setting for him, for he is a man, this Mr. Coverdale, a man’s man.
Stocky and sturdy in body, with fresh hard cheeks tanned by sun and wind, he shows the benefits of engineering years outdoors. He looks as though he plays golf every day, but, emphatically he does not. He works. He is fifty-six and he might pass for forty.
The face belongs to a man of action, too. It is strong: dominating sweep of nose from cold gray eyes to long stubborn upper lip, wide determined mouth and jut of jaw from powerful neck. Not many lines in that face except at the corners of the eyes. There is too much self-reliance and discipline in it to leave room for expression of emotion. I don’t know whether Mr. Coverdale plays poker or not. But if he does he should play it well.
Young William Hugh was born near this farm on the St. Lawrence but when he was a lad of fourteen, going to school in Kingston, his father died and the widowed mother was obliged to take her son to live with relatives at Madison, Ohio. His mother’s relatives were of the Covenanter breed and they selected a training for him to fit their strict traditions. When he was sixteen they packed him off to college at Geneva, Ohio, a place of puritanic discipline.
An Uncle Who Wanted to Know
"POUR years later, he came back to Madison with a degree in arts and the idea of taking a good holiday, but he found a stern old uncle there who would not tolerate idleness even as a graduation reward, and he so informed his nephew without delay.
“He wanted to know,” said Mr. Coverdale, “just what I was going to work at. I didn’t know, but I said engineering. He took me at my word and wrote to a friend of his in the Pennsylvania railroad. A stiff reply came back and I thought we’d hear no more about it. I got a great jolt a while later when instructions suddenly arrived for me to report at the office of the Pennsylvania’s chief engineer in Pittsburgh. That was in 1892 and I stayed there until 1901.”
A remarkable nine years they were This1 young man— ne was not yet twenty-one—had had no training in engineering. He knew nothing about stresses and life of materials and all the highly theoretical part of construction. Yet:
"In 1893,” he remarked calmly, “the railway had a
great deal of construction in connection with the world’s fair at Chicago and I was sent to look after most of it.” “Hold on,” I objected, “here you were, twenty-three years old and fresh from a course in arts. How could you learn enough in two years to undertake big construction?” “I don’t know,” replied Mr. Coverdale; “perhaps I had a natural inclination for it. Then there was a fine old Swede in the engineer’s office, a wonderful draftsman, who took hold of me and taught me what I needed most.” “You must have worked,” I suggested, and came upon the chief ingredient in the Coverdale recipe.
“Work,” he repeated, “yes, I worked. I made up my mind the first day that I must work if I was to succeed and I started right in to learn the use of all the instruments. Then I went at lettering, because good lettering is a prime essential for an engineer. I can remember going home to my little back room, having a measly supper and sitting down with a bottle of India ink and some tracing cloth to make letters all night. I’d have a bath and breakfast and go back to work.”
“No,” as though it didn’t matter, “I did without sleep many nights at that time, and I’ve done the same thing many times since.”
“Is that your recipe for life?”
“For the man who has decided he must go ahead,” replied Mr. Coverdale, “the main thing is hard work. Ability and other assets are of little value without a willingness to work hard.”
It was a recipe which began to produce results at once. When the Chicago world fair started there were seventynine men in the chief engineer’s office. When the flurry was over, only four were kept: the chief, the assistant engineer, the old Swedish draftsman and—this young Canadian.
“I’d come up through the mud,” commented Mr. Coverdale, casually. “I was getting forty-seven dollars a month.”
Then came several years of practical railway construction. “I scoured Ohio from Lake Erie down, for low grades and cheap haulage,” he said. “I worked like a dog, day and night. They were not very encouraging years but I knew afterwards they were valuable to me. Every man must go through preparatory stages like that if he is going to be equipped to go far. When 1898 came along I found myself assistant engineer of the Pennsylvania. I was twenty-six then.”
“And six years out of a course in arts?” “Yes,” he admitted.
Putting Chicago Tracks in the Air
AT THIS point the Chicago track elevation project began, an undertaking of extreme difficulty which victims of the old Toronto Union Station can well appreciate. And here occurred a thing that seems almost unbelievable. It was young Mr. Coverdale who was given the job to do for the Pennsylvania, on six years’ work and his nerve.
“I went at it,” he said. “We had to lift four main tracks up twenty feet in the air, adjust yards, switches, terminals, round houses, the whole system, to the new elevation. We had to put in bridges, subways, new streets, pavements, sewers, wires, pretty well tear the city apart. We did it,” he added gently, “without stopping a train.”
Truly, this young man had ‘come up through the mud’, and Chicago recognized it. A Chicago newspaper reporter who was sent to hear the eminent engineers of the various railways describe the progress of the track elevation in which they were engaged came back to his office and wrote something like this: x
‘When your representative entered the hall he saw a tall, thin-faced young man whom he took to be the elevator boy. He turned out to be the speaker of the evening and not since William Jennings Bryan has there been such a display of eloquent discourse.’
The thin-faced young man, of course, was young Coverdale from Canada telling Chicago how the thing had to be done. And what do you suppose his salary was for the Chicago track elevation feat? It was one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month.
Then came a break and with it a test of character and judgment. There was difficulty with the Pennsylvania’s chief engineer and young Coverdale decided to leave the railway and join a rather uncertain firm of contractors in New York.
“It looked like a foolish move,” he said, “but it really came down to the fact that I knew what I wanted. Later I had proof that I was right in being bold enough to leave the railway but the year and a half which immediately followed was pretty bad and nearly shook my confidence. The New York firm had impractical features which made me very unhappy and I decided to leave them, too. I made up my mind to stick to my judgment of things. So I quit and went to Europe and—”
“But where did you get the money to go to Europe?” “Well, I didn’t have much, but I wanted to get the taste of that New York thing out of ray mouth and I thought it was a good time to see something of the world. I was free as the air.”
“You weren’t yet married?”
“No. I didn’t marry till I was about forty.”
“Do you recommend that?”
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“For my program it would have been a great handicap to be married. But I would not want to venture that as general advice. I only know that it would have been impossible to do many of the things I did, if I had married early.”
Young Coverdale went to Europe, but not in the way most of us think about it.
“I went very humbly and cheaply,” he said, “and I really saw things. I covered all Europe, tramping most of it on foot because I couldn’t afford anything else, and I observed things. I stayed five months and landed back in New York at the end of September, 1903, with an English sovereign and a few Italian lira jingling in my pocket. That was all the money I had in the_world, but I’d an idea in my head.
“I had decided that I must start at once to work for myself. It was the one good thing my experience with that New York firm taught me. I saw the money they were making, although they knew much less than I did. So I decided to come out at once as a consulting engineer. I had no money but the day I got back to New York I wrote to three people who had known my work on the Pennsylvania and told them my plan. I needed five thousand dollars to start. Three days later I had the five thousand.”
With this sum Coverdale proceeded to carry out his resolve and here is the dividing point in his story. He rented a small office and hired a stenographer.
“It looked pretty black,” he remembers. “My rent was $1,500 a year and other costs were in proportion. I knew nobody in New York, the North Pacific slump was on, and I had no resources except the $5,000 debt. I came down to the office for nine days before anything happened. The stenographer and I sat there. Then suddenly one afternoon the telephone rang. It sounded like a fire alarm in that office.
“It was the president of a big railway and he asked me to act as one of a consulting board of three on a million dollar construction job. I’ve never discovered who mentioned my name to him, though I’ve made repeated enquiries.
“That gave me a start. The other two engineers and I went out for several days on a special train. It looked like a prolonged and elaborate job. We came back to New York and had a talk up in the hotel bedroom, for all one afternoon. I listened, and at last I plucked up nerve to say that if they would let me write the report I would have it ready next afternoon. They thought I was crazy, but I persuaded them to let me try. I went back to my office, worked all night, and next afternoon submitted the report. It was all right, too. Not a word had to be changed and the railway people were so pleased that several jobs followed.
“I got $1,500 for that first job and I was walking on air. Things seemed to be breaking fine for me. During the next few years, from 1903 to 1907, my income climbed up to $5,000 a year, to $10,000, to $13,000, to $17,000. Success seemed assured. In fact, it had arrived.
The Black Years
"DUT I had the toughest time of all ahead of me. It was the test of poverty and failure on the heels of success and it taught me my real lesson. It taught me for one thing, the great wisdom of saving money and the simple virtue of hanging on when trouble comes.
“It was the great and disastrous slump of 1907. It lasted till 1909, and few survived. Those who did manage to come through found golden opportunities at the other end and I was one of them. I had saved all my money and now it saved me. There was no business for the next two years. Nothing. But I decided to stick it out or starve. I nearly did starve. Keeping my office open ate up all my savings and I went broke at last.”
This was the period of peanuts and an apple for dinner.
“I had no money left,” said Mr. Coverdale, “but I had to keep up appearances or I knew I’d be down and out for good. I was staying at the Engineers’ Club and I didn’t dare let the men there know how desperate I was. That was why I had to get my dinners from peanut waggons as I’ve told you. Then came the turn in the tide, and I was right there I waiting for it.
“The turn came suddenly one day when I was invited by Algoma Steel to come up to Sault Ste Marie and investigate their affairs. Somebody had given them my name. I came back from there with a cheque for $5,500 as my fee. I remember it well. It was a big yellow cheque. I sat down that day at a drafting table because an ordinary desk wasn’t large enough and spread out all my bills.
I wrote out over five thousand dollars worth of cheques for everything I owed, drew the two hundred dollars that were left and put them in my pocket. I was clear with the world again and there was a job waiting for me in Duluth. I took the train to Duluth that night.
“The two hundred dollars were all I had to show for years of hard work and good jobs, but from that day to this it has been different. I’ve never had an idle day since. From that day my professional income alone has never been less than $100,000 a year and it has been as high as $350,000 a year.”
From being a consulting engineer Mr. Coverdale gradually became a financier. For example:
A Recipe For Making ‘Big Money’
THE first real big money I ever made,”
-L he explained, to illustrate the transition process, “was in Gulf States Steel, of Alabama. It was in bad shape and I was consulted. I wrote the report and believed there were possibilities in the company but nobody else would have anything to do with it. So I backed my judgment by investing in it myself and became, in fact, its largest shareholder. I bought it at one, two and five dollars a share and I’ve seen it at $182 a share since then. We’ve become investors in a lot of companies in the same way and control a good many of them. I can’t remember all.”
It was this quality of judgment and decision that brought Mr. Coverdale back home to Canada and the Canada Steamship Lines, which was teetering on disaster when the war closed. Mr. Coverdale was asked to examine its affairs in 1921 and later was invited to become its president.
“They’d made money during the war and squandered it,” said Mr. Coverdale, “and they’d gone into ocean trade where they didn’t belong. There was a $7,000,000 floating debt and the banks wouldn’t look at them.”
“What did you do?”
“We analyzed it and found a profit in fresh water navigation and a loss in ocean trade. So we scrapped or sold all the ocean part, took our loss of six million or so and got the thing healthy again. We’re all right now. In 1925 we had a chance to buy up two fleets. Twelve million dollars. All the banks were ready to help . .
Five years ago they wouldn’t even look at us.”
“Will you please explain how you look after Canada Steamships and a few other million dollar jobs from this farm?”
“About twenty telephone calls a day from Montreal and about twenty from New York,” he answered, “and telegrams and letters. I know here every day how much cash there is in every company in which I am interested. My family want me to quit it all.”
“Do you want to?”
“I should I guess. But,” with a grim little smile, “it’s hard to get away when there are things to be done.”
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