UK: Other Business - Fruit pastilles and philanthropy.

UK: Other Business - Fruit pastilles and philanthropy. - Health schemes, a model village, an in-house magazine ... Joseph Rowntree may have been a late starter, but the Quaker's business initiatives have proved enduring.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Health schemes, a model village, an in-house magazine ... Joseph Rowntree may have been a late starter, but the Quaker's business initiatives have proved enduring.

A generous medical and dental scheme, an impressively endowed pension fund, throw in the company car and an attractive salary and, by today's standards, it sounds like a fairly good package, doesn't it? Astonishingly - bar the motor - it was all available at Rowntree nearly a century ago.

But then, the company's eponymous founder was truly a man of the '90s - he just happened to be living in the 1890s.

Joseph Rowntree was born in 1836, one of five children. His parents were grocers and, more importantly, devout Quakers. He attended the sect's local school and was steeped in the Quaker ethos from an early age. At 16, he became an apprentice at the family shop, where he met George Cadbury, (of the eponymous chocolate dynasty) who became a lifelong friend. During this period, he also had a brief spell in London, tasting tea and coffee by day and watching Commons' debates in the evening. While the Quakers shaped his ethical thinking, the Victorian free-marketeers moulded his business acumen.

Keeping it in the family

Rowntree senior died in 1859 and Joseph and his older brother took over the shop. Five years on, Joseph married, but unfortunately his wife died just over a year later. After her death, Rowntree threw himself into business and 'Quaking'. Eight years later he married the cousin of his first wife.

Rowntree was a late starter. He was 33 when he left the shop and joined his younger brother, Henry Isaac Rowntree, at the latter's cocoa factory in York. The business was troubled. It had only nine employees, antiquated premises and had been making a small loss for a number of years. Part of the problem, one suspects, was the brothers' religion.

The duo's lofty morals prevented them from sullying themselves with advertising or making any claims about their products which stretched the truth. By contrast, at the time, cocaine was being touted a 'nerve tonic'. By the standards of the day, the business was a good place to work, but, by the 1870s, its losses were becoming more substantial.

The early 1880s saw a couple of critical developments. A Frenchman sold the Rowntree brothers a recipe for some increasingly popular pastilles and, in 1883, Henry died, leaving Joseph alone at the helm. Pastilles and gums saved the company. Between 1883 and 1886, sales doubled to over £100,000 per year. Moreover, Joseph's rather less pious son joined the company and, despite his father's disapproval, began advertising. The Rowntrees' fortunes waxed and the workforce soon multiplied into the hundreds, prompting concern from the paternalistic chief executive that the company was getting too big for him to give his employees enough individual help.

Rowntree bought a Dutch cocoa press and expanded into the lucrative super-premium cocoa market. Heavy and innovative promotion helped the company boom its way into the early 1890s. Yet Joseph continued to fret about the wellbeing of his workforce. He appointed a girls' welfare officer and arranged seaside trips for staff.

Nurturing the feel-good factor

All went so well that the original riverside premises became cramped.

So Rowntree bought a greenfield site just outside York and the move, which began in 1895, took 15 years. Freed from spatial constraints, the growth of the business accelerated. Between 1902 and 1904, as the number of employees hit 2,000, the boss's benevolence also increased. In 1902, concerned about communication, he started an in-house magazine; 1904 saw free medical and dental care; in 1905 he founded a domestic school for girls; and by 1906 an occupational pension scheme was instituted, endowed initially with £10,000 from his own pocket.

His other great project was the creation of a worker's village, New Earlswick, with mixed-income housing. It was designed by Raymond Unwin, a leading light in the influential and socially minded Garden City movement. A testament to the village's founder is that New Earlswick remained dry until 1978.

Rowntree gradually sat back from the day-to-day running of the business to spend more time on the social and philanthropic aspects of company management. Initially, his donations were the normal, piecemeal charity of the guilty rich. But he went much further in 1904, when he set up three trusts: one to run the village; one to conduct social research and adult education; and a third to undertake non-charitable social and political research.

Rowntree retired in 1923, aged 87, and died two years later. His sons continued in their father's tradition. The last Rowntree left the board in 1964 and the business was eventually bought by Nestle. Its founder's ideals live on in the shape of the influential Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity which supports the development of social policies. That a man who put people before profits should leave so much more of a mark than his more mercenary contemporaries is remarkable. One hundred years ago, this man was running a business that would make many modern concerns look positively, well, Victorian.

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