UK: Business Legends - Big buziness is what Heinz meanz.

UK: Business Legends - Big buziness is what Heinz meanz. - Selling vegetables at eight, bricks at 15 and declared bankrupt at 25, Henry Heinz's precocious business talents established an empire based on 'pure food' principles.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Selling vegetables at eight, bricks at 15 and declared bankrupt at 25, Henry Heinz's precocious business talents established an empire based on 'pure food' principles.

Heinz is the opposite of that old Hanson catchphrase - it is a company from 'over there' that is doing rather well 'over here' and has been for quite some time. Britain is one of its biggest markets and it has had a presence here for over a century. Indeed some of its brands, such as the beans, have come to represent British cuisine.

The man who was to be dubbed 'The Pickle King' was born Henry (Harry to friends and family) Heinz in 1844, the eldest child of German immigrants.

His birthplace, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was busily transforming itself from a fort to a steel town and Heinz senior, perhaps sensing that the city was shortly to become no place to raise kids, moved them upriver to Sharpsburg. Young Henry's childhood was, by all accounts, a pleasant one, if a little Lutheran.

By the age of eight, he was already selling fresh produce door to door and, at 15, with a book-keeping course under his belt, Henry had joined his father's brick business. Yet he always had some produce-related venture on the go, usually considerably ahead of its time in providing 'service excellence' - he would deliver his veg in the evenings when it was convenient for his customers.

In 1869, aged 25, Heinz married Sarah John Sloane and set up in business with a friend, John Noble, selling (rather curiously) bricks and food.

Not surprisingly, given his destiny, food proved more successful but when the economy fell into depression soon afterwards, the business went into voluntary liquidation. The righteous Heinz took to carrying a book marked 'M.O.' for moral obligations, in which he listed all his creditors, feeling as the Americans put it, 'obligated' to pay them back ... which he did.

As an undischarged bankrupt, Heinz couldn't run his own company, but he could run one owned by his brother and cousin. So they set up F & J Heinz, with Henry as managing director. He had clearly learnt from the past and, this time, really made a go of things. A branch was opened in the port city of Philadelphia and Heinz decided that the world was his market. In 1886, he visited that rather swish London store, Fortnum & Mason. Having demonstrated his wares to the head of grocery purchasing, he elicited the celebrated response: 'I think, Mr Heinz, we shall take the lot.' In 1888, he bought out F & J and the company became the familiar HJ Heinz of today.

Every business has it's 'well I never' fact and here is that of Heinz: in 1892, inspired by a New York ad for '21 styles of shoes', he coined the famous '57 varieties'. At the time, there were actually over 60 but Heinz (correctly) considered 57 to be more memorable. The sizeable UK chunk of Heinz was registered as a company in 1897 and the business set up shop in London's Farringdon Road in 1898. In the same year, Heinz, a man of curious passions with a genius for publicity, shipped an 800-pound alligator from Florida, which he placed in a glass tank on one of his buildings for the enjoyment of his workers. In 1900, he also produced New York's first illuminated advertising sign - an illuminated 40-foot pickle.

By then, the company was one of America's biggest and, in 1905, it opened manufacturing facilities in the UK. Henry Heinz's last great - and, in retrospect, amazingly prescient - legacy was campaigning for 'pure food' legislation, as the use of chemical additives and preservatives was becoming an issue. Though adamantly opposed by other food manufacturers, Heinz's campaigning resulted in the passing of the immensely popular Pure Food and Drug Act. So, to this day, tomato soup may be day-Glo orange, but it's a day-Glo orange found in nature.

Henry Heinz died in 1919, leaving around $4 million, including a $300,000 bequest to Sunday school associations. His son Howard took over from him and died in 1941. Howard's son, HJ Heinz II, then took the helm. HJ Heinz III also worked for the company but decided to become a Congressman for Pittsburgh. Such was the company's standing in the city that he received 72% of the vote in 1974. The business is no longer run by the founding family, although they control around 20% of the company's stock. The Heinz of today can also boast its fair share of cute statistics. Its signature ketchup graces the tables in four out of five restaurants, some 12 billion sachets of the stuff is sold annually. The company can also claim to be the US market leader in tuna, cat food and of course, on this side of the Atlantic, its beans reign supreme. Indeed, the pickle king may be dead and buried but the pickle kingdom he left behind is in pretty good shape.

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