Henry J. Heinz (1844-1919) went bankrupt due to an overabundance of one very pungent herb, but he came roaring back with his "57 Varieties" of food products and eventually built his new company into a multi-billion dollar corporation.
Henry J. Heinz was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11, 1844. As a child, he worked in the basement of his Pittsburgh home, helping his father grind spices for his mother's pickles. Everybody in town loved the pickles, and after they were canned, young Henry would take them around to buyers. He became particularly adept at grinding the horseradish, and his later fortune rose and fell with this powerful herb. To make a living, he worked in his father's brick-manufacturing firm, eventually becoming a partner in the business.
The call of pickles and other prepared foods was too great, and Heinz left brick making to return to grated horse-radish, one of his mother's most popular products. Heinz packed the horseradish in clear glass bottles to reveal it's purity. This was the first of many brilliant ideas that would eventually lead to his success. He built a model factory complex along the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania and transformed a 19th century garden into a multi-billion dollar global food service business.
Heinz joined with a friend named Clarence Noble to peddle vegetables from the family garden to neighbors in the area. He was 25 years of age when the two formed the Pittsburgh partnership of Heinz and Noble, to produce "pure and superior" grated horseradish and other bottled products. Heinz was an excellent salesman and within a year his company had been solidly established. Everybody loved his horseradish. The only thing that threatened his business was an oversupply of horseradish. That is exactly what happened. In 1875, the price of this powerful herb fell to almost nothing. Heinz and Noble were forced to declare bankruptcy. It was a blow to young Heinz. Nobody wanted to pay his price when they could get horseradish elsewhere for next to nothing.
Never one to give up, Heinz plunged back into the bottled food business. He led his company with such maxims as: "Heart power is less than horse power." Heinz motivated his people by treating them well. The working conditions at his plant surpassed what many employees had at home.
The Heinz Hitch
Heinz and his employees delivered products to customers first with a hand basket and later by pushcart. By the turn of the century, as demand and product line increased, a huge horse drawn wagon called the "Heinz Hitch" was used.
Many years later, Heinz's original Studebaker rig was found in an old storage shed in central Pennsylvania. It had deteriorated with wood rot and rust, and a tree was growing through a huge hole in its floorboards. The wagon was completely refurbis hed and became a popular attraction at fairs, expositions, and parades throughout the country.
A Growing Business
The bright red product seen on every store shelf, on almost every restaurant table, and in most homes, was created by Heinz to get his second business going in 1876. He introduced a new type of tomato ketchup that was extremely successful in the marketplace. With this ketchup and his other products, including celery sauce, pickled cucumbers, sauerkraut, and vinegar, the business continued to grow. All were made with the very finest ingredients, according to his personal orders.
Heinz was certain he knew what the public wanted, so he soon added pickles, jams, jellies, and other condiments to his line of food products. Every vegetable and herb was picked when it was at its absolute peak of freshness, carefully sorted for best quality, then packed in a very clean factory. Heinz, himself, invented the "factory tour" for people who were interested in watching the process. This brilliant publicity move spread to hundreds of other companies after executives saw the public reaction to Heinz' idea.
World's Largest Tomato Processor
Heinz soon became the world's largest tomato processor, even going so far as calling itself "tomato-obsessed." The company eventually provided more than one half the ketchup in the world, all based on Heinz' original recipe. It carefully studied the "lycopene" chemical found in tomatoes, trying to determine how much this substance can help to prevent cancer.
Always the promoter and forever thinking of new ways to acquaint the public with his products, Heinz introduced his famous "pickle pin" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The little pin became one of the most popular promotional pieces in the history of American business. It was all free advertising, except for the minor cost of the pin. Original pickle pins became valuable in later years as collector items.
As the number of his products grew, Heinz began to consider a slogan. According to the H.J. Heinz Company, "While most advertising slogans come from 'creatives' on Madison Avenue, the creation of the renowned Heinz advertising phrase is surrounded in great mystery. A visionary, Heinz was inspired by the number 57. In reality, when Henry Heinz created '57 Varieties' in 1896, the company already had over 60 varieties of products. For reasons no one will ever know, Henry Heinz' mind was stuck on the number 57, and his phrase has stuck ever since."
The number was wrong, and over the years it would become far too low, but Heinz liked it. The fact that the company had more than 57 products didn't seem to matter. The "magic" number became synonymous with the H.J. Heinz Company, and continued long after Heinz turned over leadership of his vast empire to his son. Heinz plastered his name all over billboards, in magazines, and in newspapers, in a further effort to gain recognition for his company's products.
Heinz had become known as the "pickle king" by 1896. He was a millionaire and a national celebrity. It was difficult to go anywhere without seeing his name, and that was exactly how Heinz planned it to be. In advertising, and on store shelves, the bright red products were obvious.
"Our field is the world," Heinz had declared in 1886, after making the first overseas sale. He sent his sales force around the world, to every inhabited continent including Africa, the Orient, Australia, Europe and South America. Eventually the company manufactured more than 6000 varieties in over 200 countries and territories. Nearly half of the company sales came from non-U.S. operations.
The H.J. Heinz Company eventually went public as it acquired StarKist, Ore-Ida frozen potatoes, Weight Watchers International, and other subsidiaries under the direction of Heinz and his sons and grandsons. Nearly 70% of all sales were from products without the Heinz brand name.
The company also expanded into pet foods, celebrating its 100th anniversary with "Morris," the cat with nine lives. To help preserve the environment, Heinz Italia introduced its farm-to-factory "ecological oasis" for its baby food products in 1986. Heinz USA introduced the first fully recyclable plastic ketchup bottle in 1990, and StarKist became the first "dolphin safe" tuna.
Heinz son, Howard, guided the company successfully through the critical years of 1919 to 1941. By refusing to burden the company with debt during the speculative 1920's, by exercising great care during the depression years, and by introducing baby food and ready-to-serve soup, he allowed H.J. Heinz & Co. to survive and prosper. Following in his entrepreneur father's footsteps, he also increased promotion while he cut costs (but not wages. During the Second World War, under the direction of Heinz' grandson Henry John "Jack" Heinz, the company continued to grow.
Henry John Heinz died in Pittsburgh on May 14, 1919, pleased with his own efforts and those of his son. He would certainly have been pleased with his grandson, as well.
Further Reading on Henry John Heinz
Food Industry, Grolier, 1997
Heinz, Henry John, http://www.germanheritage.com/biographies/heinz/heinz.html
Heinz, Relishing the Past, http://www.heinz.com/js/aboutrel.html