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H.J. Heinz: From Bankrupt to Mogul

I am one of those "ketchup on your hot dog" people. I know I know we are in the minority. But interestingly as I was eating that very thing and channel surfing I coincidentally stumbled upon the inspiring account of Henry J. Heinz on the Smithsonian Channel.   I was inspired by the raw tenacity and perseverance of this great man.  There were many things that stood out to me but I will focus on only two of them.

1) Before becoming successful Heinz went bankrupt. This is how it happenedIn 1875 there was a banking crisis in the US.  Heinz had already begun a company that sold horseradish.  In order to pay for his vegetable shipments Heinz had taken out several bank loans to finance his expansion.  But when the crisis hit, the money ran dry and it left Heinz several thousand dollars in debt. Most of the farmers who supplied Heinz with the produce vowed never to do business with him again.  So grim were the circumstances that he didn't even have the money to purchase Christmas gifts for his children.  Despite this,  Heinz was determined that if he would ever become successful he would pay back all of his debts to the farmers who supplied his vegetables.  After 5 years of grueling self sacrifice he was able to pay back all of his debts. Besides restoring the trust of his suppliers he was able to lay down the ethical foundation of his second company,  F & J Heinz which became the maker of the world famous Ketchup that still bears his name.  Many lesser men would have just relocated to begin somewhere else, but not Heinz.  Heinz saw business as a way of improving the lives of everyone from the supplier, to the factory worker, to the carriage driver.  Heinz held himself to the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do to you."

Heinz advertisement during World War II. Photo Credit Heinz Company
2) He put business and principles ahead of family entanglements.   Heinz was faced with a great dilemma.  His brother who was so instrumental to the early development of the company was beginning to become undisciplined.  He would come late to meetings, and take advantage of the perks of his position.   Heinz, after repeated warnings to his brother took the courageous step and decided to fire him.   This was a gutsy move since his brother was instrumental to the business.  To Heinz this didn't matter;  what mattered the most was justice.  Heinz could not risk the habitual tardiness of his brother to impact the culture of his business.  Many lesser men would have given into nepotism, but not Heinz.  Heinz had an innate sense of justice and fairness and no one in his company received preferential treatment.

Heinz is an appropriate role model for today's age.  He stands as a testament to the ingenuity and decency of the American spirit.  In this age skeptical cynicism it is refreshing to see that someone can be successful and decent at the same time.

I almost forgot - Here's a little conversation piece for your next awkward family gathering:

Do you know how the "57" in the "Heinz 57" name came about? As Henry Heinz was traveling back from a sales pitch in Europe, he asked himself "I wonder how many products my company actually sells?" He counted 57 different items. Then he realized the number was higher, but since he thought the digits 5 & 7 looked good together - he stuck with that number and it was a stroke of advertising genius.


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