He’s Brushed Himself a Fortune
There was a time when the output of the Simms brush plant at Saint John could be delivered in a handcart. To-day, its products go to twenty-five countries
CHARLES WHITNEY GILCHRIST
CARRYING coals to Newcastle they called it. When Thomas Stockwell Simms went to England nearly half a century ago with a pocketful of brushes which he had manufactured in his little two-byfour shop in Saint John, New Brunswick, doubting Thomases made all manner of wisecracks. They declared he had as much opportunity of finding a market for his product in England as there was in selling electric heaters to the Hottentots.
Were the doubting brethren right? Well, the Simms brush company has recently completed an order for English distributors that took months to execute—an order that was secured in the face of world-wide competition. Truly, the intervening years have brought many changes.
It was in 1881 that the late founder of the business, which now distributes its product almost throughout the world, went on a trade mission to the Old Country. It must be said that he met with little success toward establishing a market in England but nevertheless his visit profited him much. He studied the style of brushmaking there and compared it with his own. The following year, upon his return, he made a similar pilgrimage into the United States, collecting new ideas and data relative to the industry.
Then he came back to his little plant in Saint John and set about picking out the flaws in his own system. Did he consolidate the ideas he had gathered into his own product? Not only that, but he improved on them —combined the best features and worked out a system that was both new and satisfactory! Wiseacres who smiled behind their hands when he was endeavoring to place his line upon the English market, opened their eyes when English houses began to demand brushes and brooms bearing the Simms trade mark.
But that was in the old days before brush-making in Canada had reached the high standard it holds at present. The years brought new markets; new markets brought expansion in facilities. Rich years came, and lean, but through it all the industry progressed and grew. With the steady hand of the elder Simms at the tiller, the ship of industry passed through storms of business depression that dashed others on the rocks of financial disaster. And to-day, with the young, hard-headed, hard-working and optimistic son, of a father who was always known as hard-headed hard-working and far-seeing, at the helm, the industry is flourishing as never before. Lewis W. Simms is surely a splint from the old broom!
A couple of years ago a Maritimer peregrinating about the globe had the surprise of his life when he met an acquaintance from the home town in a Dutch barber shop in Cape Town, South Africa. The lather brush with which the talkative tonsorial artist was daubing his face had a familiar look. Closer examination proved his surmise correct—it bore the name of Simms on the handle. And when he returned from his journeyings to his home province by the sea, he brought with him as a souvenir—a Simms brush!
But that little incident might have been enacted in South America, or, in fact in any of the twenty-five countries to which Simms now sell their product.
Should you be invited,as I was,to take a look over the Simms plant, the first thing that will impress you will be the organization—the smoothness of operation—that is, if you appreciate precision in industry.
It had often struck me as remarkable that the head of such a growing industry could find time and energy to fill such important positions as president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, to which he was elected last year; vice-president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce; president of the British Canadian Packing Company, and many other smaller posts. I thought I discovered the solution to this, partially at least, while inspecting the plant and talking with officials there. It is the thorough manner in which the Simms organization is carried out, so that it continues to operate with the same smoothness and precision when the president is away from his desk for months at a time as when he is there to direct affairs personally.
As you wander about from one department to another at the heels of an official while he patiently explains the “inside” of some almost-human bit of machinery working away tirelessly as if it were equipped with a mind and will of its own, you finally begin to gain some conception of the miraculous process of evolution. There is a wide gap between the silver-tipped badger foraging about Siberian forests and the gray-haired brush that sooths your beard-roughened face in the mornings !
All the way fromSiberiacome the prime skins from which the long hairs are removed for lather brushes. Then, too, from England and Germany are brought the various grades of celluloid for the handles. The United States corn belt supplies some of the material that constitutes the business end of an ordinary broom or whisk, while wild hogs from the Borneo bush provide their stiff bristles for floor brushes.
It is a remarkable sight to watch these raw materials, gathered from half a world away, going through the many machines and emerging a finished product. Follow the finished article down to the shipping room, and you will probably arrive in time to see it boxed and labeled— perhaps destined for the very country that supplied a part of it! From the shipping room it is loaded on trucks and whisked away to the waiting freight cars or to the vessels tugging at their mooring lines by the dockside. And the older employees in the plant can tell you of the days when all deliveries were made in a hand-cart by a much overworked youngster! “Do you know,” said he, “that our men and girls turn out twice as much work as other plants? Why? Because we’ve been taught from the beginning to use our brains as well as our hands. Then again there’s a more harmonious atmosphere. We work for each other instead of entirely for ourselves.”
But before we delve further into the performance of this important Canadian industry it might be well to take a hasty glimpse back over the early career of the man who made its achievements a reality, T. S. Simms, the founder, and then for a moment to throw the spotlight on the present head of the industry, Lewis Simms, who in his position as head of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association is one of the best-known figures in Canadian industry to-day.
The Brushmaker’s Beginning
T. S. SIMMS was born near Harrison, Maine, in 1854. He got his first taste of “big business” as clerk of a small general store. When he had reached the advanced age of sixteen years, the American Civil War blazed out in all its fury and young Simms was determined to don the Federalist blue.
In this he did not succeed until he was eighteen, when he was duly enlisted in the 7th Maine battery and served with the commissariat of the Federal forces until the cessation of hostilities. On his discharge he was confronted with the problem of getting some sort of a job. Not till after much tramping of the streets of Harrison did the youthful ex-soldier manage to secure a “position,” shoveling sawdust in a mill-yard.
He received three dollars a week salary.
In this manner the young soldier was able to keep his head above water until his army bonus and back pay, which amounted to nearly $600, arrived from Washington. With this he entered into partnership with a man who had established a slight reputation for himself making brooms in Portland. It was then the firm of Redland & Simms came into existence and the younger partner started out “on the road.”
The scene shifts again. Down in Saint John, New Brunswick, a certain Mr. Andrews had made a brush. That was in 1862, ten years before the founding of the business known to-day as T. S. Simms & Co., Ltd. Apparently the Andrews article was little thought of, as no records of his achievement are to be found outside of the bare fact that he made brushes. The corn broom, of course, had been an earlier innovation and was in general use in the best-regulated homes of the country.
It is quite easy to understand, then, that three years later when one, John Murphy, familiarly known to the elder group of the craft as “Brush” Murphy began to make brushes on a large scale-—large, at least, for that day—there was little competition. Simms, whose territory extended to Saint John—or rather had no limitations, since he was the sole traveller for his firm— became acquainted with Murphy on one of his visits and saw in his growing business an opportunity.
Seven years had found it necessary for Murphy to erect a large four-story building and increase his output to take care of the demands, and it was in that year, 1872, that Thomas Stockwell Simms formally entered the business-—first as a partner and eventually as controlling owner.
Much happened during the next few years. Simms more than once faced disaster, but even when the plant, which represented every cent he had in the world, was burned to the ground, he refused to accept defeat. In the fire was destroyed considerable new machinery he had imported at great expense. Credit is a wonderful thing, however, and 1900 found the plant under a new roof. It was here that fifteen-year-old Lewis Simms, bent on earning a little Christmas pocket-money, secured his first job. It was the first he had ever tackled. Working after school hours, he was set to boring holes in brush blocks and was paid at the handsome rate of five cents a thousand holes !
Two years later, after a heart-to-heart talk with his father, he decided to discontinue his studies at Acadia University, and enter the business. The elder Simms, forty years senior to his son and ever a practical man, felt that someone should be in training to fill his shoes So in June, Lewis Simms was taken into the permanent employ of his father’s organization for three dollars a week. In the same year a new building was erected on Union Street.
Four years spent in dressing bristles and making paint brushes and Lewis Simms gained his first important promotion. He was placed at the head of the shipping department, and here, in the rush season he learned, if he had not already done so, what real work was. He’ll tell you smilingly how they used to try to get the goat of the chief’s son by burying him under an avalanche of orders, and betimes he would be kept sweating until two o’clock in the morning, tying up, boxing and labeling brushes for shipment.
The next promotion for Lewis Simms was the road. His territory was from British Columbia to Ottawa and included Toronto. This has since been so developed that to-day seven men are needed to cover it. The elder Simms was convinced that his son should receive a complete education in the business which later he would command. Even in those days the life of the “Knight of the Grip” was not entirely a bed of roses and the young, man met many hard-boiled old buccaneers of business who put arguments up to him that would have confounded the most seasoned salesman. Still he was undaunted and usually found a way.
It was on his first trip to the west that he called upon James Ashdown, hardware king of the prairies, and proceeded to talk himself hoarse on the qualities of the Simms product. When he had concluded, the hardware king arose without a word, and beckoning him to follow, led him into the cellar where he pointed to rows and rows of American-made brushes stocked upon the shelves.
“There,” said he, “is both quality and variety. That’s the kind of brushes we want. We can’t buy yours just because they’re made in Canada. When you can show me something as good, you may come back.” “I’ll be back,” said the young man as he took his hat.
That was twenty-nine years ago. Several years elapsed before young Simms had the opportunity of calling on that prospect again, for it was only a short time later that he was called home from the west by news of his father’s death. With only six years experience in the firm behind him the young man —at that time twenty-four years of age— was catapulted into the chair of president and managing director. He grasped the reins of office with a firm hand, and older men who sat with him at the directors’ board during those first few trying years will tell you that the manner in which he directed the business was a revelation.
Then one day the youthful president packed a flock of brushes in a case and started for the west. Arriving in Ashdown’s city, he invited him down to see them. The hardware king was astounded.
“Son,” he declared, “I didn’t think you could do it. But you have. You’ll have the American producer on the run now.” He placed a large order.
A Man Who Knows His Machines
ONE reason for the success of the Simms brush all over the world is its factory head’s intimate knowledge of every inch of the plant. He knows it from the basement to the water tower—knows every bit of machinery and every tool.
“I’ve known him to be called out to inspect some piece of machinery that had refused to work, and be able to lay his finger on the difficulty at once,” said A. L. Foster, who was treasurer of Simms’ when Lewis was still selling brushes. “He knows more about some of the machines than do the men that operate them. He has a well-arranged and mechanical mind.”
If you’re walking through the factory and happen to stop to watch with wonder some intricate bit of mechanism at work, as you drop a question to the man who operates it, it is ten chances to one he will reply: “This is Mr. Simms’
idea.” Or again, the president will say: “I figured this out myself.”
I learned that many of the machines in use were manufactured right in the building. I was curious. Several years ago, I was told, Lewis Simms had found it disadvantageous to import expensive machinery from distant parts of the continent and across the ocean for the plant. Still there was no holding him. He had a machine shop installed and proceeded to manufacture his own. Said Mr. Foster characteristically: “The harder he’s hit the higher he bounces.”
Whenever I hear an employer making such boasts as: “Our workers here are just like a great big family,” and that sort of thing, I always accept it with a couple of generous grains of salt, for in the majority of cases you’ll find the inside gtory much different. But when you hear that story from the inside—from the employee—one who knows—then it’s worth crediting. One of the men took a few minutes from his machine to tell me with an honest touch of pride how many of those unimportant looking flat pieces of tin he could turn into various-sized ferrules for paint brushes in a day—all crimped and stamped with the Simms’ trade-mark,
Another example, I thought, of Lewis Simms’ leadership.
Should you be looking through the Simms plant, you would surely miss something were you not privileged to meet and talk with John Kennedy and Ben Knowles, veteran broom makers, who have been daily plying their labors in that department for close on fifty-five years. If all of the brooms made by these two past-masters of the craft during their years of service were laid end to end, what a tremendous distance they would reach !
Both can tell you things about this simple household article that will-—well, literally sweep you off your feet! They know the process by heart all the way from the waving cornfields of the United States to the huge dipping vats in the basement where the broom handles receive the protecting coat of varnish which marks their completion before being sent out to lead a useful life in the world.
The Simms factory is no mere assembly plant. It might have been characterized as such even up until the new building was erected, but not to-day. Many things formerly imported from the United States or Upper Canada are made under their own roof. Important among them are tin ferrules and nickel plating, wooden and celluloid lather brush handles, turned and flat varnish brush handles.
Formerly, the rubber compound in which the brush bristles are set, was imported. This was found to be unsatisfactory. Lewis Simms set his mind to attempt to make it in the factory. Raw rubber was purchased from New York rubber houses and the experiment proved successful.
A Million Dollar Business
THE fact that the company’s fiscal year, ending last July, was the most successful in its history is explained to a large extent by expansion of its trade throughout the British Empire. South Africa is looked upon as about the best market outside of the Dominion, and very remunerative trade connections have been established there. British competition is, of course, strong, but the American style of brush-making which the Simms people have improved upon, seems to have taken the fancy of the South African importers in preference to the English product.
Of recent years a.goodly number of Simms brushes have found their way to the British West Indies, and officials are anticipating a much larger volume of trade with these islands with the recent inauguration of a new direct steamship service by the Canadian National under the terms of the West Indies trade treaty.
No records of business during the first few years are to be found, but at the end of 1875, according to a carefully cherished financial statement, the value of the finished products was $41,000 for the year. Fifty employees received $12,000 in wages; the raw materials imported totaled $18,000, while some $20,000 capital was invested. Goods were marketed in the Dominion only. To-day •—six years after the golden jubilee of the company—the value of the annual output is fast climbing toward the million mark and more than $230,000 is paid yearly in wages.
Four times during the career of the Simms Company the plant has been housed under a different roof. Once a devastating fire necessitated the shift, but the other three changes were imperative because of expanding business.
“My Father Had Faith And So Have I”
VIT”HEN, during the winter of 1912, * ^ Lewis Simms, with the assistance of his superintendent, S. D. Purdy, who came from Boston, and the foremen of various departments, was drafting out plans for the present factory which stands just at the Fairville end of the bridge spanning the famous Reversing Falls, local_ contractors scoffed at his idea of concrete construction. It would be no match, they declared, for Saint John’s tricky climate. But he heeded the knockers not at all, and the following spring the first sod was turned. Despite the rainiest season on record, the roof was on by September. The structure was 400 feet long and fifty-two feet in width, with four stories and a basement.
Nor was it the contractors alone who scoffed. Always in a city of such size as Saint John there are plenty of people waiting to knock when a boost is needed, and to cry “blue ruin” when some new industry is begun, even though it means nothing either to their loss or credit.
More than once Lewis Simms was told he was foolish to waste a large sum of money putting up a plant in Saint John when, with his product already established, he might attain a huge success somewhere else.
His only answer was: “My father had faith in the city and so have I.”
Addressing a meeting of the Saint John Board of Trade from the president’s chair a few years ago, he said: “Gentlemen, were I to receive to-morrow an offer of an imposing sum to remove my industry to some other city I would let it remain where it is, because I believe there is a great future ahead for Saint John.”
Like father like son in secular matters, and so also in religious matters. During his boyhood days in Maine the elder Simms lived with a Puritan aunt from whom he acquired a deeply religious outlook upon life. This was also part of the son’s inheritance and to this day every board meeting at the Simms plant is opened with prayer. More than that, “L.W.” as his friends call him, has devoted no little pains to the direction of numerous religious and educational organizations, some of which are continentwide in their extent. He heads the Maritime United Baptist Convention, is vice-chairman of the Boys’ Work Board of Canada, is a member of the Board of Governors of Acadia University, and chairman of the Board of Trustees of the International Council of Religious Education.
A man of many achievements, he will be the first to admit that he has made many mistakes. Most presidents, like everybody else, make mistakes anyway, but Lewis Simms is inclined to make you believe that he has made more than the average. Many thousands of dollars were lost to the firm, he says, before he learned the right and the wrong ways of doing things, but the experience was worth it. Looking at the results of that experience, one would say he was right.
A Profit-Sharing Experiment
MANY years ago the founder of the business was impressed with the desirability and fairness of the principle of profit-sharing, and put no little time and study into an effort to work it out in practice.
His efforts failed to meet with success, however, for several reasons, chief among which was the fact that he was so close to the forefront of pioneers in this field that practically no experience of any value was available from which to draw, while the accounting methods then in force were too primitive to stand the strain thus thrust upon them.
In harmony with the ideas of his father, Lewis Simms, when he took over the reins of office, continued to work toward the establishment of some profitsharing system. He considered it right, and in the interests of the business and those connected with it, to provide some method whereby not only the shareholders but all others concerned should have an opportunity to share not only in the salaries and wages paid, but in profits realized.
That his strenuous efforts have been successful in a large measure is seen in the fact that last year every executive down to and including the foremen of the plants were presented with a stock bonus equal to ten per cent of their salary. But Lewis Simms isn’t satisfied yet. He likes to see everybody get the same chance, so he’s looking forward to the day when every employee in the factory, offices and various branches, from the master brushmaker down to the lad who sweeps the floor, will be able to share in the distribution of earnings.
Not a bad idea for a man who has proved himself as hard-headed as the best of them in a world where business comes only to him “as goes and gets it.”