Big Business Is What Heinz Meanz

Article excerpt

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. …