"On his return to London, the papers began to refer to Sir Thomas Lipton not as a manufacturer, merchant, or sportsman, but as a celebrity."
In 1898 whiskey millionaire Tom Dewar sketched a caricature of Sir Thomas Lipton on a postcard, along with the letters “U.S.A.” and dropped it in a mailbox in England.
The card was delivered to Lipton at his hotel in New York.
It’s possible that in 1964 a sketch of four mop-topped young men might have found its way to the Beatles. But Lipton wasn’t a pop star. It’s also possible that today a good likeness of Sir Richard Branson would be delivered. But Lipton lived in a time when newspapers didn’t even have photographs, and modern media like television was still decades in the future.
What was it about Lipton which allowed a scrappy kid from a Scottish slum to become the single most recognizable face in the western world by his 50th birthday, to become, in essence, the first celebrity CEO?
Most Likeable Person Wins
"[T]he response to his death was everything Lipton could have hoped for. Regrets came from mayors, governors, leaders of industry, royals, and even the president of the United States, Herbert Hoover. Front pages around the world carried the news of Lipton’s death."
Despite the new millennium enlightenment of entrepreneurs, we still underestimate the value of being liked. It is continually assumed that we must do business with anyone who has the money to buy our services, or that if we have what they want, our attitude is less important than the financial value we give.
In an age where shopkeepers kept their stores dark to hide the dirt on the floor and the poor quality of the produce, Lipton paid extra for good lighting, and obsessed about cleanliness – but not so much that he didn’t have time to stop for a chat every time a customer stopped in.
In an age of powerful social distinctions, Lipton’s sincerity and generosity endeared him to the poor who saw him as one of their own made good. At the same time those qualities made this grocer acceptable to the wealthy because he made them feel good about themselves, organizing charitable functions, allowing them to feel generous while having a good time themselves.
After his fifth unsuccessful attempt to wrest the Americas Cup from the eternal grip of the States, he was so beloved by his competitors that some in America actually suggested giving him the Cup as a gift to show their gratitude for his sportsmanship. Instead, an enormous golden cup which dwarfed the sporting trophy was designed and presented, paid for by donations from all over the world.
At the presentation ceremony, for the first time in his public life, Sir Thomas “Tea Tom” Lipton was speechless. His prepared speech was read by another, while the Great Lipton sat onstage with tears in his eyes.
In a career spanning three-quarters of a century and multiple continents, this wealthy and powerful businessman was implicated in exactly one scandal (centering around a chap named Canfield, accused of fostering a culture of bribery in the tea plantations.) Lipton was exonerated, yet publicly apologized for the debacle.
Everyone who knew him, who saw him in public, who shopped in his stores, knew that he was exactly what he appeared to be: a man of incessant drive who’d made himself rich without losing touch with the human qualities which meant more to him than his fortune.
Don't Expect Others to Build Your Dreams
"For the first weeks Lipton did all the work himself, meeting the overnight boats from Ireland at six o’clock in the morning, wheeling his provisions across the bridge and uphill to the shop, and then unloading the lot and serving customers all day long. Determined to outdo the competition, he decided to forgo set hours and simply remained open for as long as there was business to be done. He made deliveries when requested – closing the shop while he ran to some address and climbed the stairs to an apartment – and he made a fetish out of sprucing up the shop. All these responsibilities could keep him busy, sometimes well past midnight, when he would fall asleep in a small back room."
Lipton’s parents ran a tiny store in a basement. If two customers came into the shop at the same time, one had to step out of the way for the other to be served at the counter.
Typical hardworking Scots, they did everything themselves and taught their children to do the same. As a result, when Lipton opened his first store, he did all the work, everything from cleaning to deliveries to stocking to selling to chatting. Tom wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and he wasn’t about to go into debt.
When the store was profitable, he’d find a willing worker and hire them away from their employer by doubling whatever wages they were making. But only when there was cash in the till. Until then, what work was done passed through his own two hands.
Over the years, I’ve been approached by dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who’ve said that if I’ll just build the website for their brilliant idea, we’ll all be rich. The world is full of people waiting for someone else to make their dreams come true.
Tom Lipton put his back into it, and in an age of great poverty and great wealth, moved himself from the former to the latter.
Balance Tangibles & Intangibles
"[H]e would add enough cornball entertainment – parades, comic posters, and slide shows projected by ‘magic lanterns’ – that P. T. Barnum would surely approve. None of the showmanship would have worked it Lipton hadn’t delivered the goods. So while he encouraged his clerks to laugh and banter with the customers, he also insisted on selling only the freshest, most appealing produce."
Pigs advertising bacon. Skinny actors with signs reading “Going to Lipton’s” and portly chaps wearing placards reading “Coming from Lipton’s.” Cartoons in the newspapers. If it drew attention, Lipton tried it. Even keeping his shops lit late into the evening, when other shopkeepers allowed their patrons to stumble around in the half-dark of a northern winter evening – Lipton knew that unnoticed meant failed.
He was never too busy to stop and chat, to point out the excellent melons or top quality bacon. His employees knew that making folks feel at home was just as important in getting their wallets out as was the top quality produce, meats, and dairy.
And top quality it was. Lipton obsessed about quality. In one instance, he bought and outfitted one of the world’s largest pork processing plants in the world, right in the middle of the United States. When he discovered that American pigs were too fatty for his British patrons, he leased the entire enterprise to his greatest competitors in the pork business, Armour, and went elsewhere for his pork, in order to retain the quality he demanded in his goods.
Never willing to sacrifice quality when he could deliver it at a fair price. Never willing to sacrifice the human touch, the warmth and friendliness which made him beloved from his tea plantations in Ceylon to the slums of Scotland to the decks of the finest yachts observing the race for the American’s cup, Sir Thomas “Tea Tom” Lipton cared deeply about the people he served, and showed it in everything he did.
Quality before money. People before money. He believed it. He lived it. And it made him wealthy and popular beyond belief.
Can it still work today? What do you think? Do you have to take care of yourself to avoid becoming next week’s doormat? Or can you put people and quality ahead of money and still make a living?