General Articles


The Story of Garfield Weston, the World’s Largest Baker

MATTHEW HALTON August 15 1948
General Articles


The Story of Garfield Weston, the World’s Largest Baker

MATTHEW HALTON August 15 1948


The Story of Garfield Weston, the World’s Largest Baker


CBC European Correspondent

THE late George Weston of Toronto, a biscuit-and-bread manufacturer, once remarked of his son: “Garfield has no sense of money values.” He was notably wrong.

Starting with his father’s Ontario business, which made an annual profit of $25,000, Garfield Weston has huilt an industrial empire in four continents which brings him a profit of millions of dollars a year.

Weston’s vast holdings have made him t he biggest manufacturer of bread in the world, the largest biscuitmaker in the British Empire and Canada’s largest wholesale grocer. His many Canadian interests range from a gold mine through the chocolate and ice cream business to paper box factories. The Weston Empire has outposts in six of the United States and has spread to India, South Africa and the West Indies. Mr. Weston is a very big operator indeed.

His sense of money values, far from being nonexistent, is a precision instrument which turns almost everything he touches to gold. “You surely don’t think I’m in business to make money, do you?” he asked me once, in what looked like genuine surprise, and the tireless wheels that drive him are certainly not love of money. He believes that he is in business, among other things, for the greater glory of the British Empire.

But in the process he certainly makes money. Last year he sold goods to the value of $334,437,581; and divided profits of more than $25 millions between his pocket and various state treasuries. He is so rich that in Britain in this year of a special capital levy, t he Treasury will take his entire income plus $80,000!

It is clear, then, that there’s still dough in bread.

Garfield Weston is not a poor boy who made good, but a rich boy who made far better. His father had done pretty well. But Garfield made a fortune in Canada before he was 30. Then he went to England and made himself a multimillionaire in just three or four years making and selling, not speculating. He turned back to Canada and bought about $12 millions worth of new businesses. He expanded to the United States, the West Indies, South Africa and India, and feels that he has only begun. He is now one of the world’s great industrialists. And he is the most unusual magnate I ever met. He is a romantic with the golden touch.

Weston, at 50, is fundamentally young and as restless physically as mentally. He is of slight but muscular build and of average height and good-looking. He has a wide forehead, candid eyes, a nose that was broken in boxing when he was a youngster, and strong, full mouth. He drinks no liquor but an occasional glass of sherry or table wine and smokes little. His only interests are his family and his business.

One of his greatest pleasures is generosity to his friends and charity. His most famous gift was that of £100,000 to the Spitfire Fund during the Battle of Britain, but he has given more than that quite anonymously to charity and good works, especially in Canada. One of his pet schemes now under way is to send 50 English boys to Canada for a holiday every year.

He loviîs talking and his talk is fascinatingly tangential; you never know what is coming next. He talks frankly about his business, his methods and his successes. His frankness, in fact, astonishes people, but often I have felt that his real opinions, methods and intentions are locked deep away and that here is a man you could never really know. A transparent man, you would say at first, but he is the reverse; “a wandering mind,” you might say, but he never misses a detail; “a simple soul,” but there is a deep religiousness in him, too.

“I’ve heard,” I questioned him recently, “that you beiieve in spiritualism.”

“Spirituality, not spiritualism,” he replied. “I’m a Wesleyan Methodist by upbringing, not a spiritualist. But I do believe this: someday we’ll know more about the unseen powers we could draw upon if we wished to. Sometimes I do feel I’m tuning in to something, I don’t know what. After all, 1 don't think I could have done all this alone.”

Here is his story.

“Pale and Fragile”

(GEORGE WESTON, Garfield’s father, began y as a bread-wagon driver in Toronto. He was a worker and in 1884 he bought out the bakery and later he founded the Weston Biscuit Co.

His son, Willard Garfield, was a student at Harbord Collegiate in Toronto on the outbreak of the first World War. One day the principal made a speech to Garfield’s class saying Britain was in danger (in Weston’s telling it sounds like a terrific speech) and the whole class, most of them under age, went down and enlisted. At 18, Weston went overseas with divisional signals in a section commanded by Lieut. Beverley Baxter— the same whose London Letter you know. “He was very young and pale and fragile,” says Baxter. “I didn’t see him in France but I heard he made an excellent soldier . . . The next time I met him, years later, he was a multimillionaire manufacturer with the world at his feet.”

Weston spent all his leaves visiting biscuit factories in Britain. He had already determined to be one of the biggest biscuitmakers in the world. He saw that the British had the best biscuits, but that their methods were costly and antiquated.

After the war he returned to his father’s biscuit and bread business in Continued on page 48

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Toronto. From the first he showed a formidable combination of qualities: self-confidence, resolution, vigor, shrewdness and leadership. At 25 he was general manager of the firm and when his father died in 1924 he took over the whole business. In his first two years he raised the profits of the company from $25,000 a year to $85,000. Then, in 1928, when only 31, he began the program of expansion which was to make him one of the world’s greatest businessmen.

First he incorporated a new company, George Weston Ltd., and then he offered stock to the public. A few months later be bought the controlling interest in the William Patterson Co. of Brantford, manufacturers of confectionery and biscuits since 1863. Business was good, sales were steadily increasing and he looked now to the United States. He went to Ne\v York, persuaded an American financier to back him and came the only cropper of bis career.

“Yes,” be told me, “it was an awful cropper. I went almost bankrupt and bad a physical breakdown, too. But it was the most profitable breakdown any man ever bad. It was my formative year. I learned then that courage is the vital element in life. I developed a duodenal ulcer and had to go to a hospital in Boston. During my convalescence I bought 20 or 30 of the finest books I could find in biography and history and I studied them. It was worth while. Something came to me then. I went back to Canada—a failure but a different man. I remodeled my methods completely and then I started to rebuild my fortunes in the United States.”

When the depression struck, he was buying new plants in both Canada and the United States. “Depressions are the best time,” he says and that is the kind of remark you expect from him. Once during the great depression, for example, be paid a (lying visit to bis plant at Brantford, which was badly hit. He asked D. L. Chrysler, the manager, if he had laid off any men. “Yes,” said Chrysler, “I had to let a few go.” “Well, I don’t want anyone laid off,” replied Weston. “We make more money out of men than we ever make out of things.”

The phrase “ enlightened selfinterest” might have been made for Weston and bis methods. Generosity makes him happy—and it pays. “I don’t buy plants, I buy men,” he says. He seeks out and hires the ablest executives and engineers; he pays them high salaries and in addition he rewards them on what he calls the merit system of bonuses. “If there’s one thing I do believe in,” he says, “it is that the better worker should get the better reward. That is where socialism falls down.”

Invasion of Britain

After only 10 years in business on bis own, during which be had raised the sales of the original firm from $2,500,000 a year to $1 million a week, Garfield Weston turned to Britain. The British made the finest biscuits in the world, but Weston thought he could make better biscuits at half the price. He did.

He had learned to begin every venture on a small scale, as an experiment. In 1935 he bought the biscuit section of the well-known Scottish company of Mitchell and Muil of Aberdeen. He improved the piant and he was a success from the start. He sold fancy biscuits at exactly half

the price at which they were sold by the world-famous firms all around him and he coined money.

He built a great new factory in England at «Slough, near Windsor, where he produced high-class biscuits on the assembly line in enormous quantities. Then be built another big modern plant in Monmouthshire, taking employment to one of the most derelict areas of Britain. He bought control or interest in many other firms and turned one white elephant after another into solid gold bricks. “I was on the spree,” he says, “I loved Britain and I saw that she had everything but enthusiasm. She had terrific wealth, brains, markets already made, and incomparable ability to pull together, but she needed enthusiasm.”

Weston’s Technique

I saw myself how Weston inspired enthusiasm. Some years ago I was a guest at his annual banquet in London to his executives and salesmen, to his bankers and backers, and to some of his most powerful rivals. The banquet was followed by a lavish entertainment; and then Weston made a speech which had some astonishing effects.

It was merely a talk about business, and how successful they had all been, and how much more successful they were going to be in the future, and how grand it was to have ideals in business, and all that. But it was a tour de force of inspirationalism. The man radiated sincerity and his hearers felt he was saying great, new important things.

One day in 1937 Garfield Weston was showing me over his new biscuit factory at Slough. Biscuits were being turned out in millions by great ingenious robots, on an assembly line all the way from pastry to packet. In the last stage of one product a tube YVRS spreading a layer of chocolate on the finished biscuit. “Look at that closely,” said Weston, and he pointed out a small jet that was blowing air on each biscuit to spread and thin out the chocolate. “Ah,” I said, “that’s blowing the chocolate off.” “Oh, no,” he replied, "it’s blowing the profit on!”

As all this was going on he had turned also to bread. In 1934 he bought the old firm of Chibnail’s Bakeries in London; and it was the same story of new machines, new methods and spectacular success. Then he started buying bakeries large and small all over the United Kingdom. Soon he had 15,000 working for his Allied Bakeries. His British and Canadian bakeries together are easily the largest breadmaking concern in the world.

See how he worked. “Suppose you’ve got a small bakery business that uses 200 sacks of flour a week,’ Weston used to say. “You’ll have to pay, say, $5 a sack. But look Yvhat happens if you have a 50,000-sack business! Buying flour on that scale you can get it for $4 a sack. You are making $50,000 a week just by doing a bigger business. And people say it’s hard to get rich!”

The late Joseph Hank, the world’s biggest miller while he lived and Britain’s second richest man, once told his sons J. V. and Arthur Rank to bring Weston to see him. He wanted to size up the phenomenal newcomer. Rank’s method was phrenology. He never engaged a man for an important position unless he had the right cranial conformation. After a long interview with Weston the old man (he Yvas over 90) told his associates this: “Tie thaï young man up with us at all costs. Even if we lie awake at night trying to figure out what he’s thinking, we’ll never do it. Better have him with us. Obviously, he’s a comer.” He was a

»mer, but he never entered Rank’s ¿mpWeston himself doesn’t think ¡o can judge character by any one letail such as the shape of the head or a handshake. But he did say once:

“I can tell more about a man by the tone of his voice than by his letters, even if I’m talking to him by telephone halfway across the world.”

“I want to see Britain wake up,” Weston used to say, and for a time he played with the idea of waking her up himself. In 1938 he opened a big new factory at Newport, South Wales, and he made the opening a triumphal occasion to propagate his new slogan, “Work Harder for Britain.” He hired a special and luxurious train to take 200 prominent guests to Newport. The slogan was bannered on every carriage. He had had a song written called “Work Harder for Britain,” and all his guests sang it that day. Some said Weston was thinking of starting a popular political movement in Britain. But he never said so himself.

He did try politics, again as an experiment. In 1939 he entered the British House of Commons as Conservative member for Macclesfield in an uncontested by-election. He made a maiden speech (defending the policies of Lord Beaverbrook) but no other. “I simply wanted to learn how Parliament ticked and to learn more about the Empire,” he says. He resigned in 1945; he had seen what he wanted and, being a lone wolf, he had not, perhaps, felt at home in Parliament. Moreover, Canada’s great industrial development had attracted his attention.

Expansion in Canada

He took his wife and children back to Canada, bought estates and businesses and settled in Vancouver. However, he is now contemplating moving his business headquarters and his home to Ontario to be nearer the centre of his affairs.

Back in Canada, Weston launched a new program of expansion. His original George Weston Ltd. had grown to include McCormick’s, Paulin Chambers and many other big baking and confectionery firms. He now bought 98.8%, of the William Neilson Co. for $4,500,000, thus making himself the biggest producer of ice cream in the British Empire and the biggest producer of chocolates in Canada. And he branched into other fields of industry in a very big way. From Lord Bennett he bought control of the E. B. Eddy paper company of Hull. Then, for some $2 millions he bought all the shares of the timber division of another paper firm, the J. R. Booth company. He merged the operations of these two firms in such a way that, whereas before the merger each had marketed about 55 products not too profitably, they now handled individually only half the number of products, but very profitably.

The next year he paid nearly $3 millions for the control of Western Grocers, a firm engaged in the wholesale grocery, fruit and vegetable business in Western Canada, and which includes 1,000 Red and White retail stores. More recently he has bought a large operating block of shares of Loblaw Groceterias. He has taken over Somerville’s, one of Canada’s largest paper-box and paperconverting houses; and to complement his Eastern Canadian interests he acquired the Sidney Roofing Co., a large producer of cardboard boxes in B.C. He also controls the National Paper Box Co. He has money in a gold mine, too; Ken-West Mines, Ltd., near Kenora, Ont. It is a terrific program. But it is only the beginning of his plans. And when you ask him

why he wants to own a hundred companies he replies, “I love the game.” At the same time he enlarged his enterprises in the United States. He is concentrating his American energies on the three fastest-growing states, Texas. California and Oregon, but he ! also has biscuit factories in New York State, New Jersey and Virginia. He looks always for the places where population is dense or growing. And in that respect Canada disappoints him. “We Canadians need 10 million new people,” he says, “but our immigration policy is timid, niggling.”

The Man and His Family

Weston has expanded his empire also to South Africa (bread) and Jamaica (coconuts). Australia draws him, too; he has just transferred $4 millions there to open a bread-andbiscuit business. And he is enchanted by the industrial possibilities of India, where he has built a paper box factory in Calcutta to make containers for the biscuits he expects to sell there in vast quantities. “There’s absolutely no limit to the possibilities for bold and vigorous spirits,” he points out. “The British Empire was built up more by its individual businessmen than by force of arms and it’s still a waiting Eldorado. If only we could light a fire under our young men today!”

In Wittington, Weston’s magnificent country estate on the Thames west of London, there is a 250-year-old carpet which once belonged to a Shah of Persia. When offered $50,000 for the carpet by a rich American, Weston refused to sell. He would never sell it, he said, because every one of his nine children had played on it.

Weston dislikes all personal publicity, particularly stories about his family life. But Weston’s home life is an important part of him and of his story.

He married Rita Howard at her Moose Jaw home in 1921. His sister Pearl met her at. the University of Toronto where they were both students and introduced her to the Weston family.

Weston has three homes; one on the Thames near London, which he now rarely uses, one on the Hudson River in New Jersey and one in West Point Grey, Vancouver, where the family now lives.

In Vancouver, Weston is relatively unknown. His name seldom appears on the society pages. He has little club or society life, has turned down membership in several exclusive organizations, doesn’t bother with Board of Trade dinners and will seldom be interviewed.

Weston loves animals, especially horses. His children own a variety of pets.

The Weston family eats a lot of biscuits at home and continually chaffs him about the quality. Weston serves tea and biscuits to visitors to his penthouse office in Vancouver, often sends them away with a five-pound tin.

He takes Saturday and Sunday off for his family and seldom breaks this rule. He likes to ride, swim, fish, play tennis and ping-pong with them. He has never learned to play golf and plays bridge under protest.

When they were in Britain, Weston refused to let his sons attend Eton or Harrow. “They are schools for rich aristocrats,” Weston said. “How can my sons deal with ordinary people in the biscuit business if they don’t know them?” At one time Weston had an opportunity to have his wife and daughters presented at court. After some thought, he turned it down. He was anxious for his daughters not to fall under the spell of high social life.

His three elder daughters, Miriam. Barbara and Nancy, now attend Stanford University. His three younger daughters, Wendie, Gretchen and Camille, go to a private school in Vancouver. One son, Galen, is under school age. His two elder sons, Grainger and Garry, are starting at the bottom of the biscuit business as their father and grandfather did before them.

Alive to the evils of money, Weston, like his father, doesn’t believe in lavishing it on his children. Before they reached college age, the Weston children got exactly 15 cents a week— and were docked if they didn’t practice their music lessons.

Weston believes that the greatest things ever said are the parables of Christ and he himself likes to talk in parables, or what he calls “stories.” At every important crisis in his career, he says, there has been “a story” to appease hostile shareholders who don’t want to sell, to settle a dispute among his own executives or to resolve a son’s dilemma. In print the stories would sound commonplace (“And the monk said to the king, ‘The most precious jewels in the world are the beads of sweat on a workman’s brow.’ ”) but the way he tells them moves the most unlikely people to tears.

“Success in anything,” Weston often i says, “is 90% inspiration and only 10% brains,” and he does inspire many people.

One night in London, when I answered my telephone, I found that I Garfield Weston was on the line— speaking from Miami, 4,000 miles away. (He writes few letters, but spends thousands of dollars a month on telephone calls.) He had just rung

up to tell me, he said, that new element of ambition and aggressi ar slowly hut surely coming forwar again among the British peoples. “Bu we need a faith and a dream,” he said.

“Splendid, hut what dream?” replied. “Faith in what?”

“Faith in the simple fact that the British Commonwealth can be great and prosperous again, unless we’ve lost, our vigor and ambition,” he said. “And my own business is a proof that we haven’t. The Weston empire has been built against the handicaps of two world wars and t wo world depressions. I n the face of sterling restrictions and world snarls and tieups of every kind we’ve gone forward more aggressively than ever. We’ve not only invaded the American dollar market; we’ve battled successfully against the stiftest competition in many parts of the United States. We’ve refused absolutely to admit that the British -—that’s us—are lacking in either insight or energy. And what I’ve done, anybody can do. It was enthusiasm, not business cunning. It was the daring and adventurous spirit, that’s all. If there’s a story in me, that’s it — not details of my nine children or my Persian rug.”

Garfield Weston comes back to that point in every conversation. The greatness and renaiasance of the British Commonwealth and Empire is his dream and his pas-sion. “Just making money is the least important thing in the world,” he says, “unless you’re making it to advance a good cause. If my career in any way stimulates the young men of Canada to see the possibilities of the Empire, then I’ve made money in a good cause.” ★