Business Antedotes


Cyrus Eaton was preparing to become a Baptist minister, when a chance intro-duction to John D. Rockefeller, the richest Baptist in the world, changed the course of his life. Born in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, the 17-year-old Cyrus was spending the summer of 1900 with his uncle, a Baptist pastor in Cleveland, Ohio. Rockefeller was visiting the church and immediately offered to help the boy: he could study for the ministry at McMaster College in Toronto and work for Rockefeller during the summers. But Cyrus found it difficult to serve two masters and went to work for the oil tycoon full time. At 24, the future mining magnate got his chance to prove his mettle. In 1907, he was sent by a group of Rockefeller associates to the recently established province of Manitoba in central Canada. His mission was to obtain a franchise to build and operate an electric light plant. The financial panic on Wall Street scared off investors, and Eaton decided to borrow the money and build the plant himself. After operating it successfully for two years, he sold it at a handsome profit. He was on his way.


Actress Polly Bergen panicked when she was suddenly offered three grand-mother roles in a row . She was 32, but still thought of herself as 18. She went to a chemist and tried out a dozen rejuvenation creams until she got him to mix one for her . Soon she was sharing her secret with fifty other women, and that’s how she and a woman friend thought of starting a mail-order business. They each put up $1,500 and first advertised in throwaway papers in Hollywood: “Then we ran our first ad in the Los Angeles Times magazine section and they put it on the pet page because I had drawn a little turtle in the ad, and they thought I was selling turtles.”

The big break came on the “Merv Griffin Show,” when Merv finally asked her what she was doing. Polly couldn’t think of anything she was doing in show business: “So I said, well, I make this oil that’s incredible. From turtles . And I kidded around about it.” Griffin then asked where women could buy it. Bergen said that it wasn’t available anywhere, unless the ladies wrote her . The following week she received 2,700 letters, each one containing a check ranging from fifty cents to $20.


The Estee Lauder cosmetics firm remained a close-knit family business for many decades. When Leonard Lauder, as older son, became president, he said that members of the family look upon themselves as “winders of the clock or directors of the symphony orchestra who try to stimulate our group of talented and brilliant people to do the best they can.”

There has always been a vague mystery about Estee Lauder’s origins in Budapest or Vienna, with nobility or dermatology lurking in the lineage, depending on whether she was pursuing clients in the shop or in Palm Beach. As a Hungarian myself, I found several pieces of corroborating evidence in some of the anecdotes Marilyn Bender relates in her book, At the Top. First, in the earliest days, Mrs. Lauder would go up to complete strangers, criticize their make-up and offer her suggestions . She often ended up selling them several bottles of her homemade cosmetics. (People often criticize strangers on a bus or tram in Budapest.) In her more mature years, Estee Lauder was fond of telling about a stranger accosting her at the hairdresser. The woman pulled her hair hack to look for any sign of a facelift, and accused her of impersonation, by shouting: “I’ve known Estee Lauder for years, and she must have had her face lifted!” (I have known many Hungarian ladies, including my mother, with such youthful skin.) And, finally, there was that opinionated, self-confident common sense. From the earliest days, she has produced something called a “Super-Rich All-Purpose Creme.” She once observed: “It’s all-purpose because I don’t believe in night cream. how does a cream know it’s dark outside?”


Sir James Goldsmith began to build one of the largest fortunes in Britain at the age of 20, when he spent his entire fortune of £100 on purchasing the French rights to a British cream to treat rheumatism. Three years later he sold out his interests for £250,000.


W. F. Boeing , a timber trader was also a hobbyist aviator. He got into the bus-iness of building airplanes when his own broke down and he couldn’t get parts to fix it. Boeing had a friend in naval engineering, and the two of them built the first Boeing aircraft in 1916. In the beginning, business was slow, so the company also manufactured furniture and early prototypes of speedboats, which they called “sea sleds.”


Freddie Laker, the enfant terrible of the transatlantic air wars, got into the no-frills airline business during the Berlin airlifts of 1948 and 1951. He had been buying old planes and parts after World War If, and during the Berlin crisis he chartered these to the Allies to fly cargo in and people out. His planes were responsible for ferrying 250,000 refugees out of the divided city.


Sam Cummings became a successful international arms dealer because that was the only business he knew. He had been a weapons expert with the CIA during the Korean War. He named his new business the International Arms Corporation and operated it out of a post office box in Washington, D.C. His letterhead described him as the vice president so that “anyone I dealt with would think there was at least one other person working in the company.


Dave Schwartz, while growing up in Los Angeles, was always interested in cars. When other kids were on their paper routes, he washed cars. Later, he earned his way through college by buying and selling used cars. His only losing venture came about when he departed from his mania. While still in his teens he invested in some plastic fishing rods that were supposed to be unbreakable. When young Dave tried to sell them to Sears, he told the buyer to try and bend one. The rod broke, but Sears

offered to take them anyway. The young entrepreneur lost thirty-five cents on each rod and went back to cars.

Car dealing absorbed Dave Schwartz more than his studies, so he left UCLA and opened a used car lot with capital he borrowed from his mother. This was in the Nixon era, and the laid-back entrepreneur still has the famous poster of the president with the caption: “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Guy?” The answer blowing in the wind was mainly negative: Schwartz was losing all his mother’s money and a lot more besides. One day, after having a lemon towed back to his lot, the customer asked him to rent her a car instead of giving her a replacement. After three months he had both her check and the car, so Schwartz decided to try leasing on a bigger scale. An actor friend joked that the new business should be called “Rent-A-Wreck.” Schwartz put out a sign, and the following morning CBS phoned wanting to do a story. Fifteen years later, the little used car lot that began renting old cars as a sideline has 300 franchises and grosses more than $40 million a year.

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