How Sir Eric conquered the New World
Born with a silver spoon, Eric Vansittart Bowater turned it into gold by launching a transAtlantic invasion that’s made him the biggest man in newsprint. With a curious mixture of Old World charm and New World know-how, he’s equally at home entertaining the Queen or bossing Newfoundland’s rugged mill hands
THERE IS NOT a knight in England who can look down his nose at vulgarity with more chilling distaste than Sir Eric Vansittart Bowater, an employer of nearly five thousand Canadians. His pedigree is so long, his wealth is so great and his taste is so impeccable that the Queen does not hesitate to be his guest. At sixtyfive this icy-eyed, stoney-faced, platinum-haired Corinthian, whose six-foot ramrod figure is usually sheathed in a Savile Row suit, has never known what life is like without country seats, town houses, butlers, chauffeurs and the company of titled friends and fashionable beauties. Burke’s Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, the studbook of England’s nobility, traces Sir Eric’s ancestry back to 1634. Among all his known forbears there hasn’t been a single poor or plebian man.
But unlike some of his peers Sir Eric is not ashamed of being “in trade.” Indeed, he boasts that he makes a good deal of his money out of the toilet-roll business. He is most prominent, however, as the world’s largest manufacturer of newsprint. As chairman of the Bowater Paper Corporation Ltd. of London he controls more than fifty companies in Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, France and Ireland.
In twenty-six years, Sir Eric has transformed Bowaters from a family merchant firm with assets of five hundred thousand dollars info an international manufacturing Gargantua with assets of five hundred million. Today the company employs twenty-three thousand workers. Seventy percent of the company’s stock is held by forty-t\yo thousand British, Canadian and American shareholders. In twelve months ending in 1959, Bowaters made fifty million dollars profit, an increase of three million over the preceding year’s prôfits. Meanwhile, Bowater mills in Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, Norway, Sweden .'and Ireland produced two million tons of paper, pulp and other products worth three hundred million dollars. Seventy-five percent of it was newsprint.
As annual producers of one and a half million tons of newsprint, Bowaters outstrip in this field
the three other giants of the paper industry. The Canadian International Paper Company, the Consolidated Paper Corporation Ltd. and the Abitibi Power and Paper Company Ltd. each have an annual capacity between eight hundred thousand and a million tons of newsprint.
In addition to his prominence as a newsprint manufacturer Sir Eric is one of the world's greatest producers of wallboard and soundproof panels; of fiberwood drums, boxes and cartons; of brown paper wrappings and shopping bags; of wax, foil and transparent paper; of paper bags; and of a vast range of napkins, writing paper, picnic plates, bank note stock and toilet tissue.
Blessed with both blue chips and blue blood, he entertains at half a dozen homes in Europe and North America. At his Newfoundland home last year he welcomed the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Five years ago, when he threw a brilliant party at his English home, the Queen permitted the band of one of her personal regiments, the Grenadier Guards, to play for his guests.
While Sir Eric's forefathers were all crested country squires they were at the same time Liverymen of the City of London. As dcscendcnts of the founders of one of the Liveries, or the ancient craft guilds dating back to the Middle Ages, the Bowaters held a hereditary claim to the Freedom of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. This entitled them to wear colored Livery gowns trimmed with fur; to dine beneath banners and coats-of-arms in the stately Stationers’ Hall; to aspire to the panoplied rank of master, warden or court assistant; to take a picturesque part in London’s most colorful annual procession, the Lord Mayor’s Show; and generally to imbue their commercial adventures with an air of history, ritual and pomp. In other words no Bowater ever felt inferior to the great land-owning families or suffered misgivings about the social propriety of buying and selling.
On this continent Sir Eric’s blood line has not inhibited his ability to compete with self-made millionaires. Two thirds of Bowaters assets lie in Canada and the United States.
At Corner Brook, Nfid., Bowaters own the world's largest newsprint mill, and their cutting rights extend over seven million acres of Newfoundland forest. The Corner Brook plant combines with mills in Mersey, N.S., and in England. Tennessee, South Carolina, Sweden and Norway, to feed paper of every description to Bowater sales companies all over the world.
The Bowater Paper Corporation Ltd., which Sir Eric calls “The Bowater Umbrella,” controls a china-clay mine in Cornwall, England, whose products are used for giving paper a glossy finish; a hydro-electric plant at Deer Lake, Nfid., whose power is used to drive the Corner Brook mills; a steamship line whose freighters carry Bowater pulp and paper to the four corners of the earth; and several trucking companies.
Sir Eric keeps his companies in the public eye with costly yet restrained CONTINUED ON PAGE 38
CONTINUED ON PAGE 38
Continued from page 27
publicity, passing final judgment himself on the dramatic color movies, the artistic advertisements and the well-written and richly printed booklets in which Bowaters tell the story of how they ally the brawn of loggers and the might of huge machines with the brain of technicians to transform trees into paper.
Each year, British newspapers headline the annual meeting of the Bowater Paper Corporation Ltd. These festive affairs are held in one or other of the English towns where Sir Eric has plants. About two thousand of the forty-two thousand shareholders arc selected by lot and conveyed to the meeting at company expense. They travel the last leg of the trip in special trains and buses decorated with blue and white Bowater flags. Sir Eric delivers his annual report nervously, for he finds speech-making a frightening duty. During the ordeal he takes occasional sips from a silver flask. Finally, with great and obvious relief, he says: “And now we will all go and have a drop of gin." What follows is a big party with cocktails, food and music.
Sir Eric’s hospitality to shareholders is matched by his operating splendor. Visitors to Bowater House, his seven-story headquarters on the modish thoroughfare of Knightsbridge, alight from cars in a covered driveway and enter a foyer decorated with banks of flowers, impressive bronze plaques and fine paintings. They wait for appointments on large red and blue leather chairs and sofas and read magazines from many countries. Eventually they are led upstairs by deferential commissionaires.
Sir Eric's higher executives occupy offices resembling the drawing rooms of art connoisseurs, and although most of them are English they have acquired on many trips to North America a custom once alien to London commerce. Encouraged by that English rarity, an excellent central heating and air-conditioning system, they often work in their shirt sleeves.
But Sir Eric never takes his own coat off. In his top-lloor executive suite he sits like a poker-faced viceroy in a high-backed chair of rich brocade, before a leather-
covered desk wit__'Q white telephones
and a crystal larr^S^L ’grounding walls of light wood IIE’T!» ’2nd perfectly with the thick lUft ' the costly drapes. Down vNÊJtÛ ., carpeted in royal blue, is SiripWN seven-room pri-
vate apartment, furnished in the style of Sheraton, hung with delicate oils and water colors, decked with exotic blooms, lit by silver wall brackets and cheered by fires that crackle in polished grates below marble mantelshelves and ornate French clocks. From the apartment windows Sir Eric looks down each morning on the Carriage Road of Hyde Park and watches troops of the Household Cavalry, in plumed helmets and burnished breastplates, trotting from Knightsbridge barracks to guard duties at Whitehall.
At Dene Place, Surrey, a twenty-room country home. Sir Eric is equally well housed. In the summer dining room an entire wall slides silently into slots, affording guests an airy environment and a view of three hundred acres of lawns, ornamental gardens, venerable oaks and chestnuts, Guernsey cows and woods thick with pheasants that fall to the autumn shooting parties.
Once a year at Dene Place Sir Eric throws a party for five hundred Bowater executives from five continents. When darkness falls he puts on a great fireworks display. Later guests dance in a large marquee and drink champagne until dawn. On several occasions each year he introduces, at parties for two or three hundred, his friends from London society and his newsprint customers from North America. At one recent party the transAtlantic note was struck by such guests as the Countess of Craven; Air Chief Marshal Sir William Elliott; Lord Douglas of Kirtleside; the Marquis and Marchioness Townshend; John Sweeterman, vice-president and general manager of the Washington Post: John S. Knight, of the Miami Herald; and Nelson Poyntcr of the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times.
Even the string orchestra of the Grenadier Guards, which was playing for dancing, felt the mingling of old and new world influences. For one of the many beauties present, an Englishwoman named Angela Grayson, it played that essentially North American number, Happy Birthday.
At smaller summer weekend house parties, Sir Eric fields a Dene Place cricket eleven, composed of male guests and servants, against teams from the surrounding Surrey villages. His cuisine is delectable. When I lunched at Dene Place last summer, a butler and footman served Pimm's cocktails, then consommé, veal
vol-au-vent, raspberries and cream, and a vintage German hock.
No less graciously Sir Eric entertains at his various homes overseas. At Strawberry Hill, near his Corner Brook mill, he owns a ranch-style bungalow furnished so agreeably that it won compliments from the Queen when she stayed overnight there during her 1959 tour. Near his mills in Mersey, Nova Scotia. Sir Eric owns a comely log house. On Pine Avenue. a millionaires' row in Montreal, he maintains a mansion. Another of his homes stands near a Bowater mill in Tennessee. Close to his sales offices in many other countries Sir Eric rents apartments. These dwellings are available to traveling Bowater executives when Sir Eric is not there.
In each of seven new Bowater freighters. Sir Eric has his own suite. For lack of time he rarely sails these ships on transAtlantic voyages, but his wife and children occasionally do. All the new freighters are named for Sir Eric's kin. including the Margaret Bowater. for his beautiful wife; the Nicholas Bowater. for a sixtecn-year-old son at Eton; and the Sarah Bowater. for a twenty-year-old daughter who worked last summer as a stenographer in a Montreal bank.
The graceful Bowater ships were designed by marine architects who struggled manfully to reconcile seaworthiness and cargo-carrying capacity w'ith Sir Eric’s fastidious insistence on appearance and comfort. The masters’ day rooms are furnished as well as any Bowater executive’s office, and even the most lowly seamen have their private cabins.
Other outward signs of Sir Eric's pride are the big red trucks that zoom along the highways of many countries. "It’s woe betide the driver,” says one Bowater transport boss, "if Sir Eric sees a dirty Bowater truck on a dry day.”
The company’s automobiles are equally grand. In London Sir Eric provides company guests with black limousines, driven by attractive women chauffeurs in uniforms resembling those of air hostesses, but a little more formal. Once, when the women chauffeurs asked if they could wear a white blouse instead of a tie and starched collar, Sir Eric replied with an emphatic “no.”
When I went to lunch with Sir Eric I was driven down from London by a pretty blonde named Mrs. Pauline Dallas. From somewhere near the rear axle, Mrs. Dallas thought she could hear (though I couldn’t myself) the faintest of grunts. "I hope to goodness Sir Eric doesn't notice that noise when we arrive,” she said. "There'll be merry hell to pay at the garage if he does.”
One of Sir Eric’s several personal cars is a 1959 Rolls Royce, but he prefers to use a twenty-five-year-old model of the same make, a rakish twelve-cylinder job still capable of more than a hundred miles an hour. Nevertheless, he forbids the chauffeur to drive at more than fifty. When he was ribbed about this a few years ago, by a Bowater executive, Sir Eric replied with one of his rat,c witticisms: "You know very well," he said, "that I like slow cars and fast women.”
It is true that he loves the company óf spirited women as much as he loves dry martinis, expensive cigarettes, light novels and musical comedies. And yet friends say that he finds informality a difficult grace. The need for greater informality in North American business affairs has induced in him a curious ambivalence. In England he addresses senior executives by their surnames. In North America he addresses the same men by their first names. Not long ago a young Montreal executive named Robert Cooper almost
“Hey, fellas!” cried a Tennessee mill hand. “We got a dook for a boss”
fainted when Sir Eric called him Bob.
Although Sir Eric has demonstrated many times that he has sentimental feelings about old employees he hates to show them. He said once to Dervish Duma, an Albanian-born financial genius who is his personal assistant: "I would prefer to he remembered as a just employer rather than as a humanitarian one." Duma says: “Actually he is both.”
During Newfoundland’s logging strikes last year. Bowater’s general manager at Corner Brook, Albert Martin, sided openly with Premier Joseph Smallwood in his successful attempt to crush the International Woodworkers of America. When the trouble ended in March 1959, Bowaters recognized the new Smallwoodsponsored union, the Newfoundland Brotherhood of Woods Workers.
Most of Bowater’s workers know Sir Eric by sight, for he is an indefatigable inspector of his manufacturing plants and sales offices. Because of his resplendent appearance and austere manner, some North American employees regard him with amusement while some European ones greet him with awe or suspicion. Five years ago, when Sir Eric opened the new plant in Tennessee, a machine hand called out to his companions: “Hey. fellas! We gotta a dook for a boss.” H.M.S. I.cwin, resident director of Bowaters in Canada, says: “One form of address always makes him wince. That’s when Americans call him ‘Mister Sir Eric.’ ’’
A respect for rank and title is implicit in Sir Eric’s heritage. His family tree is rooted in John Bowater who, in 1634, had homes in the midlands county of Warwickshire and in London. The tree is hung with marriages uniting the families of landed gentry and merchant princes. Sir Eric’s grandfather, William Vansittart Bowater, had a country seat in the majestic moorlands of Lancashire, well to the north of the county’s notorious industrial grime. But following the family tradition he went “into the smoke” to work. He managed a paper mill near Manchester until 1881, when he moved to London and established his own firm, W. V. Bowater and Sons. It specialized in buying newsprint and selling it to publishers.
By the turn of the century, the circulations of England’s new halfpenny newspapers were soaring, and W. V. Bowater’s business was booming. When W. V. died in 1907. the business was taken over by his three oldest sons, Thomas, Frank and Frederick, all of whom were knighted for their services to the Livery Companies and the City of London. Sir Thomas (who later became a baronet) and Sir Frank both served terms as Lord Mayor of London. The third son. Sir Frederick, was Sir Eric's father.
It was only by chance that Sir Eric entered the family business. Educated at Charterhouse, an exclusive private school, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1913 as a regular army officer. In 1917, however, he was badly wounded in the back at Ypres, a factor that accounts partly for his stiff carriage. After a year in hospital he had to abandon hope of a military career. For a time he was one of the wildest young bloods in London society. "He could really let his hair down,” says an old friend.
Sir Eric went apathetically into the family business but was soon stimulated by its challenge. When his father died in 1924. he began a tussle over policy with his uncles Sir Thomas and Sir Frank. "They thought I was crazy because 1 wanted to change the company from
merchant to manufacturer,” he says. “In the end I got my way.”
In 1926. Lord Rothermere lent Sir Eric the money to build a paper mill at Northtleet, Kent, opposite the great Thames port of Tilbury. Fed by Canadian logs and pulp, the mill prospered. Its output throughout the Twenties and Thirties was devoured by national dailies engaged in a spectacular circulation war.
Now Sir Eric began to work as hard as he played. In 1930 Lord Beaverbrook invited him to become his partner in building a paper mill at Ellesmere Port on the Manchester Ship Canal. It was a strategic spot for receiving Canadian logs and pulp and shipping finished newsprint to the northern operations of the big London dailies. Within two years Sir Eric bought out his uncles and Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook and gained sole control of Bowaters.
In 1935 the firm began supplying the paper for the first of two hundred million Penguin paperback books, the success of which boosted newsprint sales enormously. Soon Sir Erie was able to buy two more mills in England and three in Scandinavia.
During this period his first wife divorced him. A little later, at forty-two, he married Margaret Vivienne Perkins, a dazzling twenty-seven-year-old blonde.
In 1938. with Hitler threatening war, Sir Eric began to fear for his newsprint supplies. So from the International Paper Company he bought the mill at Corner Brook. The price was five and a half million dollars. Today the plant is worth eighteen times that sum.
During the war, Sir Eric worked for Lord Beaverbrook in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, putting in long hours, seven days a week. He was knighted for this wartime service.
As soon as the war was over he began
rebuilding the Bowater fleet of freighters. Between 1948 and 1954 he racked up his three greatest achievements. He was quicker than American paper manufacturers to realize that there would be an enormous postwar increase in the circulations of newspapers in the southern United States. He was ahead of most other paper manufacturers in a new chemical technique which permitted for the first time in newsprint manufacture the use of hardwood conifers, or the type of pine that grows in the southern states. He managed to persuade the British government, at a time when that government, was desperately short of dollars, to let him spend sixty million on a paper mill at Calhoun. Tenn., and on rights to two hundred thousand acres of hardwood conifers.
The Tennessee mill was opened in 1954. Two years later the production was doubled. Last year Sir Erie opened a second American mill on the Catawba River in South Carolina.
Today diversification is Sir Eric’s primary aim. One quarter of his paper output is in commodities other than newsprint. and he expects the proportion to increase. In England, where stores are rapidly catching up with North American packaging standards, his sales of wrapping materials have been spectacular.
Three years ago Sir Eric went into partnership with the Scott Paper Company of Chester. Pa., to form the Bowater-Scott Corporation Ltd., for the manufacture of toilet tissue in England. By discreet advertising, he has brought about a revolution In English bathrooms. Nearly half the homes there now use soft toilet tissues instead of the hard ones so abhorred by visiting Canadians and Americans. H. M. S. Lewin. of Montreal, says: “If Sir Eric had done nothing else for England, this would have been enough.” ★