Fruit Pastilles and Philanthropy

Article excerpt

Health schemes, a model village, an in-house magazine... Joseph Rowntree may have been a late starter, but the Quaker's business initiatives have proved enduring.

A generous medical and dental scheme, an impressively endowed pension fund, throw in the company car and an attractive salary and, by today's standards, it sounds like a fairly good package, doesn't it? Astonishingly - bar the motor - it was all available at Rowntree nearly a century ago. But then, the company's eponymous founder was truly a man of the '90s - he just happened to be living in the 1890s.

Joseph Rowntree was born in 1836, one of five children. His parents were grocers and, more importantly, devout Quakers. He attended the sect's local school and was steeped in the Quaker ethos from an early age. At 16, he became an apprentice at the family shop, where he met George Cadbury, (of the eponymous chocolate dynasty) who became a lifelong friend. During this period, he also had a brief spell in London, tasting tea and coffee by day and watching Commons' debates in the evening. While the Quakers shaped his ethical thinking, the Victorian free-marketeers moulded his business acumen.

Keeping it in the family

Rowntree senior died in 1859 and Joseph and his older brother took over the shop. Five years on, Joseph married, but unfortunately his wife died just over a year later. After her death, Rowntree threw himself into business and 'Quaking'. Eight years later he married the cousin of his first wife.

Rowntree was a late starter. He was 33 when he left the shop and joined his younger brother, Henry Isaac Rowntree, at the latter's cocoa factory in York. The business was troubled. It had only nine employees, antiquated premises and had been making a small loss for a number of years. Part of the problem, one suspects, was the brothers' religion.

The duo's lofty morals prevented them from sullying themselves with advertising or making any claims about their products which stretched the truth. By contrast, at the time, cocaine was being touted a 'nerve tonic'. By the standards of the day, the business was a good place to work, but, by the 1870s, its losses were becoming more substantial.

The early 1880s saw a couple of critical developments. A Frenchman sold the Rowntree brothers a recipe for some increasingly popular pastilles and, in 1883, Henry died, leaving Joseph alone at the helm. Pastilles and gums saved the company. Between 1883 and 1886, sales doubled to over [pounds]100,000 per year. Moreover, Joseph's rather less pious son joined the company and, despite his father's disapproval, began advertising. …