February 8, 2007

Dun and Bradstreet

And the men behind the brand are...
Robert Dun and John Bradstreet

The Duns emigrated from Scotland and settled in Ohio in the early decades of the 1800s. All prospered greatly save for Robert Dun. He died in 1835 and his 9-year old son Robert Graham grew up as a poor relation in one of the wealthiest families in Ohio.

At 16 Dun began his business career as a store clerk. In 1851 he eagerly jumped at the opportunity to join the Mercantile Agency, founded in 1841 as America's first credit reporting firm. Credit and its management were the engines driving young America's commercial expansion. The agency provided information to manufacturers and retailers on far-flung country stores. The Mercantile Agency promoted and protected trade in the Untied States.

The industrious Dun was promoted to partner in 1854 and in 1859 he acquired the entire interest in the Agency, now a nationwide credit-reporting agency with 16 offices in the United States, two in Canada and one in London. Three months earlier the Mercantile Agency's first Reference Book - complete with lock - had been published.

The book featured credit information on 20, 268 firms, arranged alphabetically by town and state. The key, copied from a London firm, provided four ratings for each name and a summary. A- No. 1 was the best rating. The name of the company issued to was embossed on a dark brown sheepskin cover.
The Reference Book sold for $200.

The Reference Book was published in part as a response to competition from John Bradstreet, to whose name Dun's would be linked long after his death. Bradstreet came to New York from Cincinnati to expand his business. He issued weekly reports and in August 1857 produced his first bound volume of credit reports: Bradstreet's Book of Commercial Reports. The book featured a system of ratings composed of somewhat vague numbers, perhaps influenced by the threat of libel suits. It was the first serious competition to the Mercantile Agency.

Bradstreet died in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War which crippled much of the credit reporting business. The Mercantile Agency not only lost its southern clients during the war but the need to report on southern markets.Dun himself believed the North would go bankrupt and the South would prevail, emerging as the "garden spot of the Continent."

Dun's success and Bradstreet's early profitability spawned so many rival companies after the war ended that even Dun's nearly 10,000 reporters couldn't keep track of them all. Dun worked diligently to keep his agency out of the inevitable scandals and accusations.

Prior to 1866 much of the credit-reporting in America tended to be highly subjective opinions based on a man's character. Dun's extensive reporting network used capital worth and statistical ratings. He took advantage of every new advance in technology to increase efficiency. In 1867 the Mercantile Agency became the first business to use typewriters, doing away with tedious copying of records by hand.

Dun's genius lay in his ability to secure and retain the services of men of the highest quality. Although he was sole owner of the business the profits were shared with his associates. Under Dun's leadership the Mercantile Agency emerged from the bewildering array of credit reporting firms as the unqualified leader in the industry.

When Robert Graham Dun, art collector, wine connoisseur, avid bass fisherman and bird-hunter, died in 1900 at the age of 74 from cirrhosis the Mercantile Agency consisted of 140 offices compiling information on business firms of all descriptions across the globe. Upon his death one editorial wrote, "R.G. Dun is known all over the world, and he has established an institution that will probably live as long as commerce lives."


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