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THE CENTURY MAGAZINE
THE COMMERCIAL STRENGTH
("THE TRADE OF THE WORLD" PAPERS)
BY JAMES DAVENPORT WHELPLEY
WITH PICTURES BY JOSEPH PENNELL
TOT very long ago I sat in the private
facture of certain railway appliances now
NOT very I sat great English used in every country of the globe with
company, chatting with the executive chief of the concern. The office was more like the library of a magnificent private residence than a place of business. It was very large, and furnished in rather somber but most pleasant fashion; soft rugs covered the polished floors, beautiful old mahogany bookshelves and cabinets lined the walls, while here and there an engraving of a good picture served to relieve the eye. In the center of the room at a big, flat-top desk of English make sat a man well on in years, and of the kind described as "an example of the best type of the old school business man," shrewd, but kindly, gentle in manner, sure of ground already trodden, and fearsome of new adventure. The concern of which he was the head was possessed of enormous capital, an amount which would command respect even in Wall Street. The business was the manu
one curious exception, the United States, a country which beyond doubt offers the largest and most profitable field for their exploitation. In response to my natural inquiry as to why this should be so the director said:
"I am personally responsible, I might say, for the fact that our company is not doing business in the United States. To tell you the truth, I am afraid of you Americans. I was in New York some years ago and the memory of that visit is almost a nightmare. To be frank, you Americans terrify me. I am deafened, swept away, feel utterly helpless in your hands. We are doing very well as it is, here and in other parts of the world, and while I know the United States is probably the greatest field we could enter for business, well, we just have n't done it, that 's all." After some further talk he
Copyright, 1911, by THE CENTURY CO. All rights reserved.
acknowledged that he might be prejudiced and even foolish in his prejudices, and that in time even if he were not able to overcome his fears, perhaps the younger men who would succeed him would not feel the same way.
Shortly after my visit an American direct from New York presented himself at the same office, with a letter of introduction from some bank known to the English concern. He was received with the usual kindly though dignified courtesy, and opened his conversation with the director something after this fashion:
"I have come over to buy you out." The director, somewhat startled, said: "Are you aware that our capital is a million and a half sterling, upon which we are now paying seven per cent. profit-to say nothing of the question as to whether our shareholders would be willing to part with their holdings?"
"No," said the American, "I did not know what your capital was, but if it is too big a proposition for me to handle why, you can buy me out. Here's my factory." And he pulled a photograph from his pocket and handed it across the desk. It was a photograph of a drawing, and was marked "Proposed Factory of the
Company." The negotiations went no further, and I understand from a common friend that the terror of the English director at the thought of contact with American business methods has not abated in the least.
We Americans are inclined to be impatient with English business methods. Our people come to London to close up some affair in which Anglo-American capital is interested, and expect to return within a week-perhaps on the return trip of the same steamer on which they came over. Instead of that days and even weeks go by before people can be seen and things accomplished. When they are concluded the American goes home with tales to tell
of how a "bit" of shooting, a week-end, a motor trip, a horse-race, a cricket or a golf match, or even a sick horse or dog, delayed his all-important negotiations indefinitely. When the first outburst of irritation has subsided, however, we learn of certain impressions he brought away with him from London which are worth while. First, he is even awed at the apparently unlimited amount of real money, actual cash, which is to be had if he has the "open sesame." Then he will admit, if grudgingly, the sound conservatism, the accurate information, the keen analytical power, and the firmness of conviction possessed by the men he met and with whom he dealt. He will concede to them a knowledge of the far corners of the earth which brings India, South Africa, the Argentine, in fact every place where English energy or money has been expended, within the familiar ken of the man who may never have been farther from London than the seashore, and to whom a crossing of the English Channel would be the event of a lifetime.
On the other hand, he will have met perhaps some of the army of international tramps who for pleasure or profit travel the highways and byways, observant, matter-of-fact, thorough, and so intensely English always that everything is judged by English standards and looked at in its possible relations to English profit, political, financial, or commercial. It is these qualities, these characteristics, more highly developed in each succeeding generation, which have begotten that great unorganized volume of individual trading known as English foreign commerce. The figures of this foreign commerce are so enormous as to be meaningless as such; they are but the expression of vast human activities. To prevent confusion, they are given here approximately and in round numbers, with the corresponding figures of the United States for comparison.
In the past thirty years the population of the United Kingdom has increased 25%, and her foreign trade has increased 40%. In the United States the population has increased 85%, and the foreign trade 50%. It may be added here that in Germany during the same thirty years the population has increased by 35%, and her foreign commerce has increased 250%, yielding a total in international commerce only second to that of the United Kingdom. In this great total of Germany's trade and in the rapidity with which it has risen to its present volume and value lies the reason for the anti-German agitation in England. On the surface this antagonism is political and relates to armaments, but its roots lie in the trade of the world, and it is fed upon commercial rivalry.
The bulk of the exports from both countries are manufactured goods. Both are importers of food-stuffs and raw materials. With brains and industry the German people have created a rich and powerful industrial nation out of poorer material than ever before produced such tremendous results. With a financial daring commanding admiration they have thrown their millions into the struggle for commercial supremacy, and are now reaping their harvest at the expense of their rivals. Depending upon her dominance of the seas and the weight of her billion dollars sent abroad each year for foreign investment, England now feels the sting of successful competition in her home markets. A most dangerous rival is close on her heels, and while the politician and the theorist talk of dreadnoughts, coast defenses, and conscription, her hard-headed business men are talking of new methods, cheaper raw material, and better labor.
It is a fascinating theme, this Titanic struggle for the trade of the world between the old and the newly arrived giant. It is a struggle which concerns us all, but in the United States, that great self-contained country of wide horizons, still undeveloped resources, and home markets of abnormal absorptive power, we do not as yet feel the desperate strain under which those labor who compete solely in the fierce free-for-all struggle of the foreign market.
The industry and commerce of England are like those of no other country. As a whole it is orderly, in detail it is chaotic.
No laws restrain or assist. Few trades or trust combinations control the market in any one article. Its advance is like that of a crowd bent upon one object, but with none but self-imposed discipline. The movement is irresistible, but an attack by a well-organized, disciplined, and wellcared-for force of the enemy disconcerts. In Germany, the United States, France, Russia, and other countries the industrial and commercial army is directed by master minds, policed by the governments, nurtured by special legislation. In any other country than England it is possible to grasp an idea of the organization, but here we have nothing to take hold of except the figures in the aggregate.
It is only in recent years that the English government has made any effort to assist English commerce otherwise than through diplomatic channels. To intimate to a foreign country of minor importance that to let a contract for supplies to others than English bidders would be regarded as an unfriendly act might have been seriously considered not so very long ago, but it would hardly prevail now. In fact, the story goes that within the last two years a British minister, either with or without instructions from the Foreign Office, did attempt to employ this now old-fashioned way of getting business, but was laughed at for his pains, and the contract was given elsewhere, much to the chagrin not only of the diplomat but of the English bidders who had urged him on.
Business does not follow the flag nowadays with that alacrity characteristic of the olden days of armed trading expeditions. The Germans have proved this, for they do their vast business under any flag. The people of the United States are aware of its truth, for business has not followed the American flag in its territorial advances, certainly not so as to lead to any great gains. Trade has followed capital and the hundreds of boards of directors which meet in London and who control foreign enterprises financed with British money are responsible for millions of trade coming to England, through their preference for the English bidder or supplies. While it is true that the foreign bidder is used to keep prices down, the Englishman is true to British industry if he can be so without too much loss in pocket. By preference he travels on English ships, uses