Sir Thomas Lipton, the very embodiment of the cliche, ‘Poor boy makes good’, was born in 1850 of working class Northern Irish parents in Glasgow. Lipton started work as n errand boy and became a millionaire through the vast chain of grocers shops that he had created and by 1908 he was one of the best friends of King Edward VII.
Sir Thomas Lipton left school at the age of ten years and went to work for a stationers. His lowly wage sat lightly in his pocket and even at this young age, his entrepreneurial nature came to the fore and he moved to a tailors shop, where, he doubled his wages but he was not compliant by nature and when he asked for a wage increase was sent packing. He took a short lived cabin boy job on the Burns Line taking people between Glasgow and Belfast which nurtured in him a love of being at sea that would stay with him throughout his life.
Sir Thomas Lipton’s Retail Journey.
Thomas Lipton was not yet fifteen years old when he made a life changing decision. He, like many others from Glasgow boarded a steamer not heading for Belfast this time but for New York. He intended to make his fortune there and with the support of his parents he began his journey. Just like so many others before him he soon discovered that the streets of New York were not paved with gold and failing to find work he looked elsewhere and found a job on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. Like other very successful people he was prepared to work hard and squeeze as much learning from his experiences as possible. Similar work brought him experience of basic skills such as book keeping and by the time he returned to New York he had something to offer employers and found himself a job as an assistant in a prosperous New York grocery store. He instantly took to the grocery trade and learned its secrets picking up the American style of selling and advertising which he would employ the rest of his life.
Thomas Lipton came back to Scotland.
However New York was evidently not where Thomas Lipton saw his future because he returned to Glasgow to his parents shop and here he put into practice all that he had learned in America. He pushed his parents into making changes, the sort of changes that would make a few heads turn on Glasgow streets but Thomas turned the fortunes of the small store around. In 1872 when he was just twenty one years old Thomas Lipton opened his own one man grocery shop.
Confidence and growth.
What Thomas Lipton had learnt in America he applied and expanded upon here. In America where distances may be huge between suppliers he learnt to maximize opportunity to sell a range of goods even when the unit size of his shop per se was small. He had learnt to display goods attractively and to use lights so that on dark fog filled evenings his customers good gaze on the treasures he was offering. Few people wanted to venture out into the dark streets of a Glasgow evening but with gas lighting, things changed. People could promenade and buy goods, feeling safe on lit streets. So it was that Thomas Lipton kept his shop open for longer hours. He used advertising placards to entice people into his shop with offers. He was the new face of the grocer.
Expanding the empire of ‘Lipton’s Markets’.
Lipton knew that in order to build a very profitable business he needed negotiating clout. He was keen to cut out the middleman, something he had learnt from his mother. He wanted to buy his product direct from the producer and the more he could buy in bulk, the less he would pay and he could pass on such a cost saving to the consumer. By 1890 Thomas Lipton had seventy branches in London and by 1898 that figure had shot up to two hundred and forty five all over Britain. He called them ‘Lipton Markets’ to emphasize their character as sellers of cheaper food to the poorer sections of the community. This was the new retailing revolution. By the late 1880’s Lipton was supplying over 10% of the nations tea. He saw an opportunity to become a major tea supplier.
Ceylon had suffered a major failure in its coffee production and Thomas Lipton saw a way to use the plantations to produce tea. Before that tea had to come from China, a long distance but Lipton saw that by producing it in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) the tea would have less distance to travel. It would be fresher and cheaper. Tea was going to become the national drink, affordable to pour at all the nations tea tables. Within a short period of time he owned five plantations and controlled the whole manufacturing process. His new slogan?
“Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot.”
Advertise, advertise, advertise!
No gimmick was left untried by Lipton, he wanted to make people laugh, he wanted his name to be synonymous with the word grocer. He employed the talents of cartoonist, Willie Lockhart, who each week produced a new cartoon for him. This engaged people. Not only did Lipton buy fresh foods, butters, milk and cheeses from Ireland for example but he was quick to adopt and adapt new manufacturing processes, tinned and bottled goods and many imported goods as well. In a way the grocer Lipton altered people’s taste and expanding their culinary horizons. By the time of WWI, the multiple grocery retailer was here to stay.
A limited Company.
In 1898 Lipton “yielded to the public clamour” and allowed his empire to become a limited company. Such was the regard for Lipton and his grocery stores that there was an unprecedented rush for shares. At the National Bank of Scotland the police had to regulate the crowds. Applications were received for almost £50m worth of shares. His great wealth, he was a multi millionaire, did not make him forget where he came from and he was known for his charitable work. One of the earliest and best known was his gift in 1897 of £25,000 for the Princess of Wales’ plea to provide dinners for the poor of London during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. He worked with Queen Alexandra to set up the Alexandra Trust which provided meals at a very affordable price to the poor in London.
During World War I he fitted out his steam yacht Erin as a Red Cross hospital ship and transported a field hospital to France. It was used over and over again to transport medical aid.
Lipton used his wealth to benefit sport.
His love of sailing never left him and he spent a fortune trying to bring back to England the America’s Cup but not one of his famous ‘Shamrock’ series of yachts ever quite succeeded.
He wanted to encourage sport at all levels and he gave money to support many tournaments with a ‘Lipton’ Cup ready to be handed over to the winning team. In 1909 Lipton was made a Knight Commander of the Grand Order of the Crown of Italy. He, in turn presented the Italians with a cup to be used for an international football competition. The Football Association declined to put forward a team so Lipton turned to West Auckland Town near Bishop Aukland in County Durham to represent Britain. The team was made up mostly of coal miners and with Lipton’s support they achieved an incredible thing, they beat Red Star of Zurich and Juventus to win this cup in 1910 then successfully defended the title in 1911. Because of this Lipton is often credited with initiating the first football World Cup.
Lipton’s personal life.
He never married and never forgot his family in Glasgow. He enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and threw magnificent parties on board his yacht Erin. He was part of the Prince of Wales the future King Edward VII’s circle. In 1898 he sailed to the Isle of Wight to be knighted by Queen Victoria. He must have been a hugely charismatic man he had friends from the royal household at home but was a frequent visitor to America where he was immensely popular, he dined at the White House and entertained President Roosevelt on board the Erin. He died aged 81 years old and much of his wealth was left to benefit the city of Glasgow. He had lived a wonderful life.