February 7, 2007

Swift

And the man behind the brand is...
Gustavus Swift

In 1855, when Gustavus Swift was 14, his father gave him $25 to go into the meat business. He purchased a heifer for $19 and when the young cow was ready the man who would eventually sell more beef than anyone killed her himself in a shed. Swift turned a $10 profit on his $25.

Swift went to work for his brother, a Cape Cod butcher, that year and drove around New England buying and selling cattle. In 1869 he opened Swift’s Market in Clinton, Massachusetts, incorporating all the ideas he had discovered in his sales trips. Above all else Swift valued cleanliness in what was a traditionally messy business. He deplored waste and always searched for new markets that could use his by-products.

In a day when a good meat meal could be had for 15¢ Swift was doing $40,000 of business in a small New England town. But Swift was always restless to expand. In 1875 he travelled to Buffalo to buy cattle closer to their source and eliminate middle men. He saved money but realized how much more could be saved if he didn’t have to ship live animals, feeding and caring for them, back East.

He knew he had to deal in dressed beef from the Midwest. He borrowed every penny he could to expand; Swift was never one to turn down a loan offer. Daily he staked his business on faulty refrigerator cars which failed to keep his perishable goods cold. No one took his efforts seriously; others had tried and failed. Technical problems with the cars hounded him, sending him perilously close to ruin.

Railroads didn’t want dressed beef and refused to build reefer cars. Swift convinced the Michigan Car Company to build him cars which blended the best features of previous failures. Swift built ice stations on the route in the event of failures and finally Swift had 100 train cars a year coming east with Chicago dressed beef.

The battle was hardly over. Some Eastern towns boycotted the refrigerated beef they couldn’t accept as fresh. When this happened Swift refused to allow his agents to move elsewhere. They sold beef directly out of the train cars until local agents accepted the shipments. Swift simply pounded on prejudice against Western beef until he won over his customers.

Now Swift borrowed all the money anyone would lend him. Sprawling plants went up in Kansas City in 1888, Omaha in 1890, East St. Louis in 1892. Across the Midwest Swift established slaughterhouses and shipped refrigerated beef to now eager Eastern markets.

The great speed and growth of his business caught Swift unaware. When the Panic of 1893 hit over ten million dollars of Swift’s notes were called in. Swift employees lent him money to help pay the debts and nearly all the company assets were converted to cash. Through the crisis Swift remained tranquil and composed in both his business and personal life as rumors of collapse swirled around his company.

The huge meat-packing firm survived. It was Swift’s last major battle. Western beef was now accepted everywhere, and the only things he spent his time on - his company and his family - were stable and prospering. The years until his death in 1903 were unsettlingly peaceful.

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