February 8, 2007

W.R. Grace

And the man behind the brand is...
William Grace

William Russell Grace was born in 1832 and ran away from his struggling Irish family farm at 13 to work on sailing ships. He came to Peru with a colony of Irish farmers to escape the potato famine. Discouragement, homesickness, and malaria tore the band asunder but Grace remained. At 19 he found work as a ship chandler in Callao, Peru and by 1860 he established a prosperous merchant trade in South America. He loved Peru and made Spanish his language.

Grace's health failed and he left the business to his brother as he drifted around Ireland and elsewhere before settling in New York in 1865, forming WR Grace & Company to handle the family's Peruvian business. He established the Grace shipping lines with the familiar green smokestacks.

Grace became a personal adviser to the Peru government. Largely through Grace's effort a Peruvian army and navy were established. Then he sold ships and arms for war with Chile in 1879. The war left Peru $25,000,000 in debt with unhappy bondholders. Grace agreed to take over the entire national debt of the struggling nation.

In return Grace was awarded unprecedented concessions: valuable silver mines, the entire guano output of Peru, and five million acres of land containing valuable oil and minerals. To ship it all he held the lease on two railroads for 66 years and the right to build a third and hold it in perpetuity.

In exploiting these concessions Grace did much to build up the country of Peru. To his critics, however, he was the "Pirate of Peru." His interests in shipping, sugar mills, lumber and banking extended across the Americas.

Grace built his empire completely out of the public eye. But while commuting one day on the "Sewanhaka" across Long Island Sound a boiler exploded. An old veteran of nautical crises Grace took command and organized an orderly escape, saving scores of lives. He was famous the next day and drafted as a strong businessman to fight notorious Tammany Hall. In 1880 Grace became the first Roman Catholic mayor of New York City.

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