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A History of our Firm
Chapter XVI - Retrospective and Discursive
Curtailment of Foreign Connections


SECTION III—CURTAILMENT OF FOREIGN CONNECTIONS

In reviewing the history of Pollok, Gilmour and Co., and its off-comes, the question naturally arises why, after so many years of auspicious trading, the junior partners in 1861 did not continue to go ahead, or at any rate assume the partnership interests in the foreign concerns. Well, cycles arrive, seasons and tides come in regular rotation, and so it is with generations of men. It must be remembered that William Strang, George W. Hoghton, and Robert Rankin II were mostly past middle age. George Sheriff, the oldest of the partners after the retirement of Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Rankin, had long been accustomed mostly to clerical work, and was practically without finance. It is true that Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Rankin were not retiring in 1861, but whether from course of nature or from their own desire, their withdrawal might be anticipated at any moment, and as the withdrawal or death of the one would naturally induce the withdrawal of the other, the junior partners would, when that event occurred, have a stiff stone wall to surmount. They would have to pay the senior partners out in the reasonable time provided for in the partnership articles, and while doing so would have had to carry on the ordinary routine business, requiring considerable capital to enable them to do the advancing and banking business for the constituents abroad. Many Colonial shipbuilders got their outfits and much material shipped out practically altogether on credit, the hulls in due time coming home for realization. Store-keepers similarly got their supplies in spring and autumn—diversified, indeed, were the indents. These accounts at some part of the season were expected to come to credit—as time wore on they less frequently did so. Especially in Liverpool there were many accounts running, besides those of the foreign concerns, which were akin to banking accounts. Then there were the timber stocks, ships, and other assets to be taken over and paid for. The prospect of having to assume the foreign concerns, and thereby to incur yet greater responsibilities and liability to the outgoing partners, may well have acted as a deterrent.' Even with the home concerns under reduced canvas I have reason to know that the matter, when it did arrive, taxed to the utmost the by no means small financial ability of Robert Rankin ii. The foreign concerns were not, in 1861, by any means dry bones, but their position afterwards certainly did not improve. Some of them were in 1861 essentially rotten ; others were inefficiently or ineffectively managed, but on a proper valuation and with proper management, some were capable of excellent results.

It was the custom for the foreign partners to come home practically every second year to submit their work to Glasgow and Liverpool, to assist to vend their lumber, and to meet the purchasers. There were interviews from time to time with the senior partners, Mr. Rankin and Mr. Gilmour, but the field day was reserved till the day before they sailed again from Liverpool. Mr. Gilmour came up, and his remarks were, I fear, more frequently than not of the pungent order, and far less pleasant to face than the critical and painfully logical ones of Mr. Rankin. I have seen these partners come out of the private office perspiring, and the happiest moment of their visit, I believe, was often that on which they stepped aboard the outgoing steamer. I do not think that at these meetings they ever rose beyond the position of boys before a head master. I of course refer only to the years after 1861.

I feel it almost a sacrilege to criticise the action of these two men, who in the distance appear to me as business giants; but if an attempt is made to write history the writer should state his deductions as well as facts and dates.

Excepting these periodical visits from the foreign partners there had for a long period of years been practically no return visits of Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Rankin abroad, and no periodical visits abroad by men whose conclusions and reports would have had weight with these home partners. The course of business naturally alters, and clever men as they were, I think that Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Rankin, knowing the methods and practice by which they had succeeded so well when abroad, did not readily listen to alterations of methods 1/ such were suggested, which possibly they were not, and I feel assured there was not in certain quarters the capacity to give such advice. At any rate, they did not go out and see for themselves what changes might have been advantageously introduced. Perhaps it was natural that this should be so, as they felt they knew the conditions so well; but they did not even send emissaries. With advancing years generally comes intolerance of change, and the rest-and-be-thankful spirit grows strong.

Robert Rankin II, it is true, went out early in 1861 to inspect and make a full report for the guidance of the seniors, and to aid the juniors in determining the extent the new Company's partnership should go. But his selection was, perhaps, not a fortunate one. In justice to himself he could not report favourably, and if his report were to the contrary the fact of his being interested as a buyer stood in the way. As a matter of principle he knew too well that it was impossible for a man to be buyer and seller at one and the same time. He reported just what he saw, and counselled the other junior partners not to go on with any purchase.

These junior partners made no effort to depart from the customs and usages as they found them. The visits of the representatives of the foreign houses went on as before, but none were made from this side; no changes were instituted; no young men were brought along, either at home or abroad. James Rankin and John Gilmour, the only sons of the home partners, elected to adopt a country life, and therein they have lived as useful and strenuous lives as did their fathers.

My good fortune it was to have dropped in about this period, and without undue humility I cannot profess having assisted towards regaining the magnitude of the old firm. The old business worked out or was allowed to lapse—R., G. & Co. have strayed into new fields. The evidences of the departure may be best understood when I say that when I entered the office the business was entirely with British North America. The U.S. Southern ports were then closed by the War, and the New Orleans and Mobile houses were inoperative. To-day our business is practically only that of steamship owners, and practically the only warranty in the steamers insurance policies runs:-' No British North America' (this on account of the dangers of the St. Lawrence) which means that we have a worldwide range of ports where we may trade to, except the ports of British North America. The irony of it!

As regards this country, it might have been a wise course to have admitted to partnership Edward G. Price, who was in the London office, and my senior, a nominee there of Messrs. Price Bros., of Quebec and Saguenay. This firm, when taken in hand, needed considerable financial assistance, but their timber limits and facilities for shipping were such that after a few years nursing they were in an excellent position, with ample funds at their credit. Messrs. Price Bros. were anxious for such an arrangement, but it was not conceded —Edward Price left G., R., S. & Co., taking with him naturally the Agency, which was a very fine business.

Three men in this history stand out as great—Allan Gilmour senior, Alexander Rankin, and Robert Rankin.

To the first-named the firm undoubtedly owed what it afterwards became. Rough, uncouth both in form and nature, of dogged determination, brooking no interference with whatever was his will, he initiated great things. As I have said elsewhere, a powerful but not a pleasant man.

Alexander Rankin, gentle of disposition, of infinite tact, ever thoughtful of others, possessing a considerable insight into character and of the possibilities for business development, he could, when the occasion required, be very firm. His was the strongest influence with the members of the various firms abroad, most of which he may be said to have, in effect, created. No doubt Allan 'Gilmour senior often entrusted him with his views, but he had within himself that which makes for- greatness, and needed little inspiration to big efforts.

Of Robert Rankin senior, I consider his was the greatest brain of all the partners at any period. Though at one time he had cherished the idea of retiring to the country and to the land he loved, his sense of duty led him at the hour of the Company's need to renounce any such personal view. The occasion passed—'tis pity that a life of selflessness kept him thenceforth tied to the desk and away from interests dear to him which probably, too, would have prolonged his life. I am unable to write exactly as to the place he occupied in the firm's affairs so long as the Polloks remained. I believe it was long before 1861, and I know that thereafter he was the guiding, I may say the sole, initiating factor. Mr. Allan Gilmour of that period was the critic. His letters to the foreign firms were eminently censorious ones, fault-finding to a degree, but affording no useful directions. Those to Liverpool were not so couched, but afforded neither light nor support. They gave little more than a résumé of pros and cons. True, in the Quebec days he must have done strenuous and possibly originating work. Wisely he recognised the greater brain lay with Mr. Rankin, the friend of his youth and co-worker throughout life. No doubt the shooting and country pursuits he allowed himself prolonged his life beyond the years which Mr. Rankin attained.

I say the three I have named were great. They were initiators, wise initiators. Some men can keep the wheels of an erstwhile sound business running; some cannot even do that. Certainly without the acumen to recognise at the proper time the changes that inevitably come in business, or without the activity to snatch the opportunities that occur, no concern can succeed or even survive beyond a certain period.

After Mr. Rankin's retirement, R., G. & Co. continued in a modest way for some years the merchant business that had so long and ably been carried on by him. Ultimately we confined this to purchasing produce to fill the warehouse rooms above the office, with the view of earning the rent and a profit and also to pay the warehouseman— a highly-paid official for the work he did. We had not adopted the newer methods of business, and generally failed to achieve our purpose; indeed, after 1871 or thereabouts, profits proved rare, and on an average the net losses were many times the rent; so after due trial for many years our warehouse was emptied, and so remained. Then one or two big cotton crops created a demand for warehouse room, and it has since been rented to outsiders. The tendency, amounting to practice, with all produce now is to sell to arrive, or to sell direct to the consumer from the quay, not from the warehouse. Every firm of repute doing anything approaching merchant's business then maintained a warehouseman. The custom was a relic of an older period. When Mr. Rankin built the block of offices 65 to 69 South John Street, he made two stories warehouse rooms, the whole length and depth of the block—no one would think of such a course to-day. In times further back the dwelling- house, office, and warehouse of the merchant used to be one and the same building, or contiguous. An 'example of this practice still stands where Leyland and Bullins' Bank used to be in York Street. I am informed that when the Holts built India Buildings they were so dubious of the block entirely of offices letting that the structure was so arranged that the upper stories of offices could, and can to-day, be readily altered into warehouse rooms.

Mr. Thomas Irvine told me he remembered when all the offices in Water Street were in the old dwelling-houses, only slightly converted; further, that his firm was the only surviving original tenant of India Buildings, the first buildings in Liverpool designed for offices only, and now even they have had to get out to make room for the increased requirements of their landlords, the Messrs. Holt.

No firm of any pretensions but had its warehouseman; he was as inevitable as was the now almost discarded brass name-plate. His functions were to engage outside warehouse-room when required; to hire and supervise the men collecting at the docks, and housing the goods or delivering them; to master-porter ships' cargoes; and to accept private commissions. This, when he engaged room from an outside warehouse-owner, generally amounted to the first fortnight's rent. He had little or nothing to do with the classification of the goods —here the broker's warehouseman stepped in. It must have been about this time that the story obtained of the warehouseman putting forward his oft-repeated request for a higher wage, being informed 'If ever you ask again I'll make you a partner!' It was a wasteful system in every way. There is no doubt the broker's man drew unnecessarily large samples, and during the American War the cotton broker counted on paying his rent, salaries and all expenses out of the moneys realised on the sale of samples when they were done with. But all that is altered, and to-day there are in the old sense no merchants and no merchants' warehouseman. The broker combines the merchant's business in his own, or as is less frequently the case, the merchant has become his own broker. The brokers tell me that even now the private commission from the warehouse-keeper to their warehouseman continues with only this difference, that they recognise it as they cannot help it. The Corrupt Practices Act is in force, but apparently it does not prevail over human nature of the baser sort.


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