The Wheat Pool
An action picture of “the most colossal commercial enterprise of its kind in the world”
W. A IRWIN
PROPPED up on the desk on which this article is being written is a group photograph of eleven men. With one exception—that of a dapper, almost boyish sitter whose not too exuberant mustache would suggest that he might be a year or two out of college— all of the individuals in the group have that about their persons which bespeaks contact with some sort of manual toil. Big-framed, broad-shouldered, sober-faced, clear-eyed, they bear the stamp of men who have labored long and arduously in the open air. They look like farmers. As a matter of fact, six of them live on the farm, and with the one exception already noted, all of them own farms, and all of them at some time or another have done their stint behind the plow.
There’s not a weak face in the group, but it is no disparagement to say that without foreknowledge one would never take them to be what they are—the men who direct the destinies of the most colossal commercial enterprise of its kind in the world. Last year, in their several capacities as members and executives of the central board of the Canadian Wheat Pool they were responsible for garnering an income of $323,000,000. To amass these millions they sold wheat in twenty countries scattered over four continents. To distribute this wheat they chartered cargo space in more than 2,000 vessels clearing out of and into sixty-eight ports.
These eleven men, in short, are the master salesmen of the world wheat trade. They exercise absolute control over one quarter of the world’s international wheat supply. By virtue of that control they wield an economic power that is felt wherever wheat is bought and sold. By virtue of that power they rank among the moguls of world commerce.
And yet never were moguls less mogul-like. They themselves would be the first to reject the term as an utter absurdity; in some respects, with reason. To the orthodox eye they do not look the part. In fact, there is something almost sinful in their lack of the usual external evidences of superlative success in the marketplace. Collectively, the group directs the flow of an enormous wealth; individually, there is not a man among the eleven who, as wealth is measured nowadays, is wealthy in his own right. They live simply. To
“swank” they are complete strangers. “Who’s Who” has passed them by; their names are not in the social register. Sartorially, most of them would be left at the post in competition with any thirty-dollar-a-week haberdashery clerk. I doubt if any one of them ever
was seen in a top hat and frock coat. One of them, I happen to know, occasionally puts his feet on the desk during business hours. All of them—again excepting the “mere boy” with the horn-rimmed spectacles, who, by the by, is something of a prodigy in himself—would be more at home at a plowman’s picnic than at a business men’s banquet. And yet these are the men who order the business that in five short years has achieved control of half the Canadian wheat crop and thereby won place as the giant of the world wheat trade.
Yes, they’re farmers; and proud of it.
Small wonder! They’re building on the prairies a new aristocracy of achievement.
“A Near Miracle of Mass Organization”
'"THERE is more to follow about the men themselves Jand others of their associates, but, for the moment the question is: How do they do it? In other words, how does the pool function as a going concern? How is it organized? To put it more concretely, how does the pool farmer away north on the fringe of the Peace River country co-operate with his brother pool member in south-eastern Manitoba, some 1,200 or 1,300 miles distant, to sell wheat, say, at Yokohama, Cape Town, Athens, Hamburg, one day, and at Helsingfors, Genoa, New York and Vladivostok the next?
As may be imagined it takes a bit of doing. Also a great deal of machinery and by no means simple machinery at that.
To begin with, there are not two co-operators, but a hundred and thirty-three thousand of them scattered over an area of several hundred thousand square miles. Naturally, most of them have never seen each other and never will. The mere feat of so organizing them that when it comes to disposing of their wheat they shall act as one man is an immense task in itself. And yet the pool has so organized them, as witness the broad-shouldered group just introduced. In actual fact, there is one man and he happens to be the prodigy in horn-rimmed spectacles, of whom more later.
Then there is the business of getting anywhere from 200,000,000 to 250,000,000 bushels of wheat from the
sixteen million pool acres to some forty or fifty million consumers dotted over four continents, and all through a single control—to lay eyes, a near miracle of mass organization.
How is it done?
Well, to reduce an infinitely complex process to an almost absurdly simple formula, try to get a picture of the prairies in your mind’s eye and then think of a great fan spread out over the whole of the area with its butt resting on Winnipeg. Then imagine a second great fan with its ribs reaching out from the butt at Winnipeg toward Europe and Africa and beyond to Asia. In some respects the simile is woefully inadequate as there are a number of other centres, each with their minor fan systems radiating into the main system and in some cases the two main systems overlap, but in broad outline the ribs of this double-ended fan may be taken as representing the pool’s mechanical skeleton.
Now, think of three great floods moving continuously along the ribs of these two fans—a flood of wheat converging on Winnipeg along the ribs of the prairie fan and then diverging along the ribs of the second; a flood of commercial paper—growers’ receipts, railway way-bills, terminal warehouse receipts, bank paper, lake bills of lading, invoices, trust receipts for grain in transit, ocean bills of lading and what not—the flow of which, in the main, parallels the flow of wheat; and a third flood of cash or its equivalent moving in the reverse direction.
Before we try to see how this immense organism functions, perhaps I should remind the reader that when we speak of “the pool” we mean not one selfcontained organization, but nine interlocking companies and associations. First, there are the three provincial pools centring, respectively, in Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg, which start the flood of wheat and paper moving toward Winnipeg, and handle the cash after it leaves Winnipeg on the reverse journey. Then there are four subsidiary elevator companies, two of which are owned outright by the Saskatchewan pool and one each by the Manitoba and Alberta pools. Next, there is the federation of the three provincials, the central pool, the officers of which sit in the control house at Winnipeg and direct all three floods as they surge in and out of the grain city and along the ribs of the great fan reaching out over the Atlantic; and, finally, a small subsidiary linked directly with central, which handles the placing of all insurance on pool grain. There is also a relatively small tenth unit, the Ontario Pool, which for the sake of clarity in description I am not going to include in the general picture. Also, as a matter of convenience, I shall continue to refer to the system as a whole as “the pool” and to the central pool as “central.”
Now that we have the dry, but necessary details disposed of, let us see if we can build up an action picture of the whole.
A Deluge of Wheat
TGNORING for the moment the detail
of the method by which the pool membership is organized and the fact that somebody has to find the money out of which the grower receives his initial payment when he delivers his grain to the elevator, the collection and assembling of the wheat are logically the first stage of the process. This is left entirely to the provincial pools and their elevator systems until the grain reaches the terminal elevators at
Fort William and Port Arthur or Vancouver and Prince Rupert. I can hear some shrewd reader protesting that the inclusion of Vancouver and Prince Rupert knocks our pretty fan picture all awry but the discrepancy really does not matter, as these are two of the minor centres, whose fan systems interlock with the main system.
Now, try to visualize, if you can, the 1,435 pool country elevators scattered among nearly as many towns and villages dotted along the ribs of the prairie fan. In actual fact, to make the picture complete, hundreds of other elevators will have to be included, for gigantic as is the pool country elevator system it cannot begin to handle more than about sixty
per cent of the pool grain. This complicates matters, but I’ll try to straighten out that little detail later.
One customer to an elevator a day would mean a physical check of, say, two thousand or more deliveries. But picture the prairie fan on any day during the first flush of harvest. There’s not one customer to each elevator but dozens and scores, each rumbling up to market with his wagon load or wagon train of grain. Tens of thousands of wagon loads to be checked, weighed, and graded or sampled before they empty their contents into thousands of bins. All day long and far into the night from end to end of the prairies, groaning axles creak in chorus; all day long and far into the night the chug of gas engines beats the rhythm, and the hiss and swish of flowing grain sing in obbligato as thousands of bins dis-
gorge into thousands of railway cars. It’s all hurry, hurry; for five million wagon loads of pool grain wait. Tomorrow is another day and today’s flood is but a passing freshet that must be measured and tallied down to the last bushel.
That’s the marvel of it. No matter how huge the flow, each day that passes sees the sum of it all recorded in the pool nerve centres. Walk into pool headquarters today and somewhere in the office you’ll find a man who can say: “Yes, our receipts at country houses yesterday were so and so million of bushels.” He’s assembled the news by telegraph and by tomorrow or the next day or the day after, he, or more correctly, others in one or other of the provincial pool offices will be sorting and checking and classifying the spate of paper which records these receipts down to the last minute detail.
And a Flood of Paper
THIS picture presented by millions of bushels of good, sound tangible wheat pouring through thousands of elevators into railway cars and then on to the seaboard is relatively easy to visualize, but not so the continually changing mosaic into which the paper flood is patterned as it, too, reaches out toward the sea and beyond. As a matter of cold fact, the accuracy and efficiency with which the provincial centres handle this paper flood in its initial stages is one of the truly astonishing achievements of the pool.
Beginning at the beginning again and taking the operations of the Saskatchewan Pool as typical of all three, let us see what happens. When the grower delivers his wheat at the local elevator, either pool or non-pool, he may ship his wheat in any one of several ways which need not be detailed here. Whatever method the grower elects, the elevator operator issues four copies of what are called “grower’s receipts.” Two of these are taken by the elevator operator, one to be retained by him and the other to be forwarded to the elevator headquarters, either pool or non-pool. The grower, in turn, keeps one copy and forwards his second copy to the pool headquarters at Regina. If the grower disposes of his grain immediately without further provision for grading—in the jargon of the trade as “street wheat”—he gets also a cash ticket for the amount of the initial payment authorized by the pool, less handling charges and freight to the terminals. This cash ticket he can cash at the local bank whenever he wishes. If the grower chooses one or other of the methods of shipment by which payment is deferred, he receives his cash ticket later on, after his grain has been finally inspected or has reached the terminal.
Here is where the banks come into the picture for the first time. In effect, every branch bank in Western Canada is a paying office for one or other of the provincial pools, and without the Canadian branch banking system the operation of the pool would be much more difficult than it is.
Now that the grower has received his receipts and has forwarded one to head office, let us see what is going on in the big pool building at Regina which covers most of a city block. One section of the office is given over to a staff whose duty is to check the aggregate receipts reported day by day by the elevator companies, grade by grade. In effect, this involves the keeping of a running history of each carload of grain, for each carload has to be checked as it leaves
the country point and checked again as it arrives at the terminal. This involves, of course, the checking of shipments against the railway bills of lading. More than that, the total receipts of any given grade at the terminals must balance with the aggregate shipments of that grade from all the country elevators.
In describing the physical handling of the grain I mentioned the shipment of pool grain through non-pool elevators as a complicating factor. In reality it is not such a serious complication as it might seem, for the nonpool elevators make payment to the individual growers just as do the pool elevators and are reimbursed by the pool on the basis of aggregate shipments reported
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to the pool by each individual company. This is done as a matter of routine, but whatever else the result, it does complicate the accounting as the elevator check must balance not only for the pool system, but for the non-pool systems as well.
This check through the elevators, however, is but one phase of the bookkeeping process. Over in another section of the pool office a record is being kept of all the grain handled, in terms of individual growers’ accounts. Each grower is given a number—an essential detail as, for instance, there are more than 350 Olsons in the Saskatchewan Pool alone. Day by day as the copies of growers’ receipts come in, they are entered to the credit of their respective account numbers. It sounds simple, and I suppose it is to those who do it year in and year out, but to the outsider the results are nothing short of staggering, for there are 78,000 individual accounts and the daily aggregates credited to these 78,000 accounts must agree absolutely with the day-by-day totals reported through the elevator companies. The astonishing fact is that they do agree. During one season the handling of 130,000,000 bushels involved a million entries. And the totals agreed to the pound, not only for one grade of wheat, but for 343 grades, each grade of which had to be entered on a separate price basis, and each grade of which had to be totaled separately. Truly a herculean feat of accounting. And yet in this Big Business, built by farmers, it is but a mechanical detail, a mere matter of routine carried through by men to whom it is all in the day’s work, and taken for granted by pool members among whom it arouses no more comment than would the making out of a fifty-cent laundry bill.
In the Flood Control Tower
AS WE have already seen, the proTY. vincial pools retain control of the day-by-day freshets of wheat until they reach the terminals either at the Head of the Lakes or Vancouver and Prince Rupert. Once the grain reaches the terminals—there is a round dozen of them holding something like 33,600,000 bushels —it loses its identity as provincial grain and is merged in one great flood controlled down to the last bushel by central. At the terminals the transfer is merely one of authority. The actual transfer is made in terms of paper—terminal warehouse receipts of one sort and another— and it takes place at central pool headquarters in Winnipeg.
This brings us to the eight-story pool building in Winnipeg which houses all the central pool offices, the Manitoba pool headquarters, and branch offices of all the other pools and their subsidiaries. Here is the nerve centre at which the two great fans of the pool system meet. In this building are consummated the transactions which give the pool an income of more than a million dollars for every working day in the year. Here is the control tower from which nine Canadian farmers direct the flow of one-quarter of the world’s international wheat supply.
The offices themselves are no different from those of any other big business. What transpires in them, however, cannot be paralleled anywhere in the world.
Consider, for example, the task that confronts the men who sit in what might be termed the flood control rooms. Here are spoken and written the orders that govern the flow of half the Canadian wheat crop. Here you can actually see the piling up, the checking and redirecting of the flood of paper which must be kept moving with the wheat, else the whole gigantic process were meaningless. There’s none of the rumble and roar that
goes with the physical movement of the grain, but here again it’s hurry, hurry, for the wheat market is a sensitive instrument and decisions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars are often a matter of seconds.
By wire and wireless these men are in constant touch with other men who sell pool wheat in a score of countries; with all the great grain exchanges in North America and Europe; with the pool’s accredited agents the world over; with the pool’s own offices in Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Fort William, Toronto, Buffalo, Montreal, New York, London and Paris. Day after day a stream of cables pours in from Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin, Belfast, from Copenhagen and Helsingfors and Oslo, from Hamburg, Berlin, Mannheim, Antwerp, Dusseldorf, Brussels and Rotterdam, from Zurich, Lisbon, Genoa, from Shanghai and Yokohama, from Cape Town and Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro.
Rapidity of communication is the essence of success in the grain business and the pool pays yearly toll to the god of speed in the shape of a bill of $88,000 for the single item of telegraph and cable tolls. The paper that seals a contract can wait for the slower mails, but the transaction itself is made and finished almost while you wait. In the pool’s first use of the trans-Atlantic telephone five minutes conversation with London sufficed to sell 100,000 bushels of wheat.
And not only speed. Distance is annihilated. In any given day these men in the control rooms at Winnipeg may be directing the loading of a dozen ships at Port Arthur, routing scores of thousands of bushels of grain over half a dozen railways to the Atlantic seaboard; chartering ocean tonnage out of Montreal, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Vancouver or Prince Rupert; dickering with Lisbon or Liverpool or London over a thousand bushels, or it may be a million; weighing the market developments in a dozen different countries; ordering the discharge of pool cargoes lying in who knows how many of sixty-eight of the world’s great grain ports. Last year, they chartered 548 grain boats on the Great Lakes and loaded grain into 1,171 vessels sailing out of ports on the Atlantic seaboard, not to mention another twentyseven out of Prince Rupert and 270 at Vancouver.
Last year the pool’s bill for lake freights alone was $6,400,000. It paid out nearly three million dollars merely to move a relatively small proportion of its grain by rail from lake and bay ports to the sea coast. Its bill for ocean tonnage was a cool $10,000,000 odd; its bill for rail freights in the interior, $27,000,000.
It is a stupendous business, this finding of a market for a million dollar’s worth of wheat a day. One marvels that mere man can thread its intricacies without becoming hopelessly bewildered. Consider, for instance, the documentation of one eastward export shipment after it comes under central’s control. First, there is the terminal warehouse receipt which represents so much wheat binned in any one of
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seven terminals at the Head of the Lakes. This is replaced by a Lake Shippers’ Clearance Association certificate which in turn gives place to a lake bill of lading. Thiè goes to the bank as security for pool loans and ultimately is delivered by the bank to one of the pool’s eastern offices in return for what is called a trust receipt. Then the trust receipt is replaced by an ocean bill of lading; this goes back to an eastern office of the bank, is joined by an invoice sent from Winnipeg, and the two together are forwarded by the bank to the point of destination overseas where they meet the wheat shipment and payment finally is made. To the layman it’s worse than any jig-saw puzzle, but when one remembers that not one shipment but tens of thousands are involved, hundreds of them simultaneously; that the process has to be kept straight in relation not to one bank but seven, and that final payments have to be juggled in relation to the currencies of a score of countries, the puzzle assumes the profundity of a problem in higher mathematics.
And yet, as I have remarked before, it is but a detail of the farmer’s latest method of doing business.
The Farmer’s Adventure in High Finance
THEN there is the matter of finance.
Last year the pool borrowed something like $65,000,000, the loans being distributed among the seven large Canadian banks. I’m afraid I’ve used so many of these huge figures that they are beginning to lose all significance, but perhaps it will help to give the figure meaning to say that the year’s interest and bank charges alone cost the pool more than $2,100,000. This business of pool financing is a story in itself, but space will not permit recording it in detail. Suffice to say, that before the crop begins to move, experts from the pool flood control tower meet representatives of the banks with an estimate of the amount of credit that will be required during the crop year. The total amount is distributed among the banks by agreement and the money advanced to the pool as required on the basis of a fifteen per cent margin. That is, the banks advance on any given quantity of grain an amount up to eighty-five per cent of its market value, taking as collateral for the loan commercial paper indicating ownership of the given quantity of wheat. The rate of interest, incidentally, is six per cent.
In the large, the process may not seem to be particularly complex. Neither it is, when so regarded; but when carried out in detail, the result is complexity raised to the nth degree. The pool does not get the money in one lump, but only as it needs it and is able to furnish the necessary security. Each transfer of cash must be matched by a corresponding transfer of paper. Multiply this double transfer, say, a hundred thousand times; consider the constant switching and interchange of paper that follows in the wake of each individual transaction and goes on continuously as the grain flows out from Winnipeg into the markets of the world, and this phase of the farmer’s adventuring in high finance becomes still another cause for wonder.
This borrowing on a scale that would stagger not a few of the governments of the Dominion is the major source of the funds from which the pool makes the initial payment to the grower when he delivers his grain to the country elevator. The fact that this payment is always considerably less than the current market prices makes it all the easier for the pool to secure the money from the banks. This year the initial payment was eighty-five cents for Number One Northern, Fort William basis; during the three preceding years it was $1.
As the season advances, the proceeds from the sale of grain flow back to the banks, so that ultimately the pool instead
of being a debtor becomes a creditor and is in a position to make further payments to the individual pool member. And this brings us to what is, perhaps, the most striking financial feature of the pool’s operations. Under the old system of grain marketing the farmer received payment for his wheat in one lump sum. Under the pool system he receives not one payment but four; the initial payment already described, a second payment some time in March before the commencement of seeding, a third just before the harvest, and a fourth and final payment early in the autumn after the pool books have been balanced for the year. In a subsequent article I shall discuss in greater detail the manner in which this system of payments has well-nigh revolutionized the farmer’s relation to general business in Western Canada, but for the time being I want to describe still another spectacular phase of the pool’s operations which it entails.
The Ten-Miles-of-Cheques Trick
TF ONE were casting about for a subtitle it might be called “The TenMiles-of-Cheques Trick.”
As I have already mentioned, the initial payment is not made to all pool members simultaneously but to each individual grower as he delivers his grain. But not so with the second, third and fourth payments. These are made simultaneously and this explains the fact that periodically you will see a news item in the daily paper which reads something like this:
Winnipeg, March the umpteenth— Today the three provincial wheat pools are distributing $37,000,000 to their members throughout the three prairie provinces. This amount represents an interim payment of twenty cents a bushel, basis Number One Northern Fort William, on 185,000,000 bushels of wheat delivered to the pools to date.
How do they do it? Well, in the first place, central simply draws on its credit with the banks for this amount and distributes it among the three provincial headquarters in proportion as they have forwarded grain for marketing. This division, in itself, involves a nice problem in bookkeeping but it pales into insignificance before the task that then confronts the three provincials. They have to distribute it among 133,000 growers and they have to distribute it exactly down to the last cent in proportion as each member has delivered grain, and it all has to be distributed on the same day, else there is going to be a howl from beneficiaries whose cheques don’t come in on the same day as their neighbors’.
Here’s where the bookkeeper and accountant demonstrate once more their mastery of numerical magic. Consider, for example, what happens at the Regina headquarters of the Saskatchewan Pool. We will suppose for the sake of convenience that, of the total, Saskatchewan’s share is $20,000,000. This has to be divided among 78,000 growers. Considering the complexity of the task, the speed with which it is carried through is little short of amazing. The basis, of course, is the individual grower’s accounts—78,000 of them—which in turn are based on the “grower’s receipts” which I mentioned in describing the physical movement of the grain. Each of these accounts is examined, and the number of bushels entered on the credit side is multiplied by the amount of the per bushel payment. And here’s where the accountant meets his nightmare, for this per bushel payment is not always twenty cents, as might be supposed. Each grade must be calculated separately, and in one particular season the Saskatchewan office actually handled 343 grades of wheat, so that the unit payment may be any one of 343 fractions of twenty cents.
Despite the extraordinary complexity of the operation, the office will turn out
14.000 cheques a day. The actual accounting is done on machines which typewrite, add, subtract, multiply and divide. The cheques are written on other machines which typewrite, add, and make a permanent copy. No amount is too large or too small to upset the system. In one Saskatchewan mailing the amounts sent out ranged all the way from thirty cents on two bushels to $14,000 on 70,000. The mailing itself is handled by still another mechanical marvel which seals the envelope, prints the address, stamps the envelope, cancels the stamp, and turns the letters out in bundles ready for the post-office at the rate of 18,000 an hour. And in the end the whole $20,000,000 leaves the office on one mail—ten miles of cheques to be distributed among
78.000 growers of grain scattered over the whole of a great province.
Appalling as is the infinitude of detail involved, the process is carried through with astonishing accuracy. In one payment by the Alberta pool, where the method is similar, the mailing of 43,783 cheques resulted in precisely thirty-eight complaints of inaccuracy.
After recording which, I rise again to remark that the Canadian farmer has travelled a long, long way since a certain E. A. Partridge rented a desk for a dollar in Wilson’s country store at Sintaluta and thereby launched Western Canada’s first farmer-owned grain business.
The Power of Centralized Control
SUFFICIENT has been said, I think, to indicate that the pool is an amazing example of intensive and extensive commercial centralization. The fact remains, however, that it is equally extraordinary when regarded purely as an economic democracy. All its vast superstructure is but the outward evidence of a power that found outlet when 133,000 individual farmers agreed to agree. And in the last analysis, these 133,000 farmers call the tune to which the pool Colossus dances.
Each of the three provincial pools is, in itself, a specialized democracy, within its own limited sphere, an autonomous economic commonwealth possessing its own parliament and its own government. Representation by population is worked out as methodically as in any political state, probably more methodically, for there is no politics to interfere. All of the citizens in these pool democracies have equal power, for whether a member delivers two bushels or a hundred thousand he has only one vote. Rank makes no difference. When it comes to balloting, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Sutherland, Lord Rodney and other titled members are on an exact parity with Petro Urchak, Simon Belanger and Neis Olson.
Each of the provincials is divided into subdistricts, each of which sends one delegate to the provincial pool convention. Election of delegates is by annual vote of the members on a postcard ballot under a system of transferable vote. The subdistricts are grouped in districts and each district is represented by one member on the provincial board of directors who is elected by the delegates from that district. In Alberta, for instance, there are seventy subdistricts, seven districts and a board of directors of seven members; in Saskatchewan, 160 subdistricts, sixteen districts and a board of sixteen. Both delegates and directors hold office subject to recall by the members who elected them.
The central pool has no electorate of its own, but is a federation of the three provincials. It is managed by a sort of federal cabinet composed of three directors from each of the three provincials. Thus there is an unbroken chain of authority leading up from the pool
membership at large to the central seat of power in Winnipeg.
This detail concerning organization makes dry reading, but the point I want to emphasize is this: Here is an immense commercial system which functions, and functions with superlative efficiency, in the world of trade only by reason of its centralized control. Commercially, it lives by mass selling—which presupposes near-autocracy. And yet the power that makes this possible is derived not from above but from below. In short, this most successful organism of its kind in all history is not autocracy but democracy; and in that fact there is more than a little food for thought for Signor Mussolini and others of like mind who stigmatize democracy as an outworn institution.
The Men who Guide the Pool
A ND what of the men to whom this
Y democracy has entrusted a power that is without parallel in the world’s grain trade?
Unquestionably their most outstanding characteristic as a group is their relative youthfulness. Most of the executives of the nine units in the system are still in their forties or barely out of them; some of them still in their thirties. A. J. McPhail, president of both the central and Saskatchewan pools is forty-five. E. B. Ramsay, general manager of central, is forty-two. R. D. Purdy, who occupies a like position in the Alberta pool, is forty-one. C. H. Burnell, president of the Manitoba pool, R. M. Mahoney, manager of the Manitoba pool, and D. L. Smith, head of the pool’s London (England) office, are all comparatively young men. Throughout the entire organization, gray-haired executives are the exception. But the most astounding case of youth triumphant is that of the prodigy in horn-rimmed spectacles — thirty-five-year-old George Mclvor, who, as the central pool’s general sales agent, is responsible to his general manager for the direction of a marketing organization that last year distributed two hundred and twentytwo million bushels of wheat and harvested an income of three hundred and twenty-three millions of dollars.
When I asked E. B. Ramsay for an explanation of this phenomenon—it is a phenomenon when you consider the magnitude of the power these men exercise— he smiled. “Well,”he replied in his deliberate Scots way, “it’s a young man’s country. Our old men stay young in the West and our young men mature early. Some of the people over on the Grain Exchange seem to think it’s too bad to see ‘mere boys’ selling all that wheat. But age doesn’t matter. It’s efficiency that makes all the difference.”
Someone once remarked that the province of Saskatchewan, being an agrarian state where life still clings closely to the soil, is destined to contribute more than its share of outstanding Canadian figures. That may or may not have something to do with A. J. McPhail’s climb to power, but I’m rather inclined to think that the chief reason for his success is to be found in A. J. McPhail himself.
As might be expected, he is a product of the homestead, a native of Bruce county, Ontario, where his people farmed near the town of Paisley. His family moved to the West when he was fifteen and his early training was no different from that of any other farm boy. His subsequent rise to a position of prominence in the farmers’ movement was typical of that of many of the agrarian leaders of the West, a slow process: first, a post in the farmers’ “local” of his immediate neighborhood — the Elfros country in Saskatchewan—then a gradual promotion to posts of wider responsibility, leading to the secretaryship of the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Associa-
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tion. Now, head of the largest commercial concern in Canada, he still is in many respects what the urban dweller is pleased to call “the typical farmer.”
His is not a colorful personality, but it is a forceful one. There’s not a trace of the surface emotionalism of demagoguery about the man. Reserved almost to the point of taciturnity, quiet-spoken, deliberate in his thinking, his strength lies in his coolness, his directness, his sincerity—and his determination. One glance at his square-set features and firmly modelled mouth would satisfy the least observant on that last mentioned point. He is no orator and yet he possesses that rare ability of being able to dominate an audience by sheer force of simplicity. I once watched him tell the story of the pool to a gathering of 500 Eastern business men. As a speech his effort was by no means outstanding, yet his listeners hung intent on every word. No egotism, no dramatizing of a story made for dramatization, no verbal pyrotechnics—simply a plain man’s unvarnished account of the achievement of plain men. And when he had finished, his audience went away marvelling.
Such is McPhail, the man who recently startled blasé Washington into realization of the existence of a new world force in the Canadian West.
E. B. Ramsay, general manager of central, is a Glasgow Scotsman who has been in Canada only nineteen years. Service with the National Bank of Scotland and, later, with the Bank of India, China and Australia, earned him a banking post in Siam. The tropics proved too much for his health and, following a breakdown, he came to Canada to visit a brother in Saskatchewan. He liked the country, stayed, bought a farm and found his niche as manager for the Union Bank at Fillmore, Saskatchewan. Subsequent service with the Union Bank took him to New York where he spent two years before moving on to a managership in Seattle. Banking palled, however, and he turned back to farming at Fillmore where he encountered all the trials and tribulations commonly experienced by Western farmers of that day. Being a clear-headed Scot, he soon saw that salvation lay through the organized farmers’ movement. The farmers’ movement soon discovered that it had recruited a clear-headed Scot and the banker-farmer’s course at once was set toward ever-increasing responsibilities.
In some respects Ramsay is not unlike McPhail. There’s the same quiet modesty, the same sincerity and directness, a similar deliberative caution—but with a difference. Scot though he is, his is a more volatile nature and there’s usually a twinkle lurking in the corners of his shrewd, gray eyes. He might well be called the practical idealist. His idealism explains his allegiance to the pool; and the hard-headed qualities that make him a good business man, his selection as the pool’s general manager. And idealist though he is, I do not envy the man who tries to put anything over on the man in a business dea
Mclvor’s story reads like a fable. Eighteen years ago he was a C.P.R. telegraph messenger boy in Winnipeg. Today at the age of thirty-five, he is the sales executive responsible for directing the distribution of one-fourth the world’s international wheat supply.
Even yet the oldtimers in the trade at Winnipeg can scarcely believe the miracle. Week after week they see this fair-haired, round-faced, fuzzy-mustached, boyish prodigy calmly going about the business of marketing a million dollars’ worth of wheat a day. He’s been doing it for two years now, with the graybeards of the opposition predicting disaster almost every other week and yet there’s no disaster—only the impossibly youthful Mclvor dickering with twenty different countries and matching wits with the
shrewdest grain buyers of four continents.
There is, of course, only one explanation for the phenomenon. Mclvor is a born grain salesman and in the pool he found an opportunity such as never youngster found before him.
Like McPhail he is a native-born Canadian. His people were Selkirk settlers who homesteaded in the Red River valley when Winnipeg was a fort in a wilderness. Born in Portage la Prairie he became fatherless when he was two years old. His family moved to Winnipeg and the condition of the family purse necessitated that young George go to work as soon as he had finished his schooling. After two years of toting telegrams he trotted into the grain trade as a messenger for the McLaughlin Grain Company. Five years later he was manager of the McLaughlin branch at Lethbridge and from then on his progress was a series of jumps. By 1920 he was Winnipeg manager of the Williard Cumming Grain Company and a year later, Calgary manager of the James Richardson Company, one of the largest grain firms in the West. He joined the pool as western sales manager in 1924. Nineteen twenty-seven found him selling half the Canadian wheat crop at the age of thirty-three.
Ramsay spoke truly when he said this was a young man’s country.
The Port’s Elder Statesman
A MONG all the pool leaders there is ^ only one who qualifies for the rôle of elder statesman and that is Henry Wise Wood, vice-president of central and president of the Alberta provincial. Wood is one of those rare individuals, an original thinker. He hails from Missouri and in all seriousness might be taken as the walking incarnation of that mythical gentleman—the original man from Missouri. He has stalked through life an inveterate questioner of things as they are. But not as a destructive critic, for his constructive thinking, his genius for organization and his oracular forcefulness on the platform have brought him a personal power seldom, if ever, equalled in Western Canada. For fourteen years he has been head of the United Farmers of Alberta. He was a member of the Canada Wheat Board—in which capacity, incidentally, he had a hand in applying his economic theories to the practical solution of emergency war-time problems that was the forerunner of the pool. He could have been premier of Alberta twice over, but he has always scorned the pomp of power, preferring the rôle of king-maker to that of king. Many of his followers regard him as a veritable prophet, and small wonder. To see his long, lean, lanky form unfold itself from a chair on the platform of a farmers’ meeting, to hear him voice the gospel of salvation by co-operation as one having authority is an event. His was the brain that back in 1923, transformed a provincewide emotional upheaval into an economic entity, and if any one man can be said to be the father of the wheat pool Henry Wise Wood is that man.
Editor’s Note: This is the second of a series of articles by Mr. Irwin on the Wheat Pool. The third and concluding article will follow in an early issue.