Real People. Real Stories. Real Business.
Chris Bell

Early Modern-Day Pacesetters in the Art of the Business Deal

In the early 19th century, city-dwellers were alarmed that there would be no one left to build the roads and sewers. As housing became more expensive, this concern turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy as each new building built in a crowded area would turn an already crowded city into a smoggy, congested maze of glass, steel, and plaster.

One man had a grand plan to solve this problem and make cities sprawling: Aaron Montgomery Ward.

After an illustrious career as an attorney, Montgomery Ward became wealthy on his own terms. In 1868, he built an estate on 250 acres in Northfield, Illinois, and spent his days making calendars and bathing in his 250-foot pool. At the same time, he began buying up land in smaller cities across the country. In 1894, Montgomery Ward founded the company which would eventually be known as the Wal-Mart Foundation, a charitable trust that has given more than $310 million to causes as varied as the Chicago Lyric Opera and the homeless of Seattle.

Ward was still living in Northfield when he formed the foundation, but not far away, as had become a practice of many famous visionaries in the previous decade, he called on a local lawyer named George Norris to help oversee his foundation’s dealings. Norris had no previous experience as a philanthropist. Nor did he have any expertise in the development of the public trust. Norris had served on the Northfield Park Commission for several years, where he was known as an advocate for parks and playgrounds in the city. He had also worked on developing rules to prevent plazas, baseball diamonds, and other park amenities from causing noise pollution.

Norris had not spent a day in public service.

Yet Ward hired him anyway. By June, the two had drafted a set of bylaws and set a deadline for their work. It was to be a standard, profit-sharing contract—Norris would receive a 5% share of Ward’s net income from each project, the value of which was to be determined by market analysis and Ward’s estimation of Ward’s tax burden. But the two men soon discovered that this contract would create certain legal headaches. The issue: a foundation’s job was to take an existing, mature industry, like construction, and help it become the engine of the economy. But there was no industry yet to take.

Norris convinced Ward that the best way to jumpstart industry would be to move a growing number of workers into the city, thereby fuelling business. This would require the city to expand, on an unprecedented scale. Norris suggested to Ward that the foundation buy a substantial amount of land in Chicago’s North Side and build an industrial park. He then suggested that the foundation purchase land in Atlanta and Seattle and open a large number of factories there. He also recommended opening plants in Boston and Philadelphia, and as many as five within each city, depending on the economy.

Nowadays of course people from that city can enjoy some time spent checking out new online casinos without even thinking twice about just how different the business environment and market were in the pioneering days of Ward and Norris.