Nabisco’s Adolphus Green Made Cookies Profitable

Adolphus Green didn’t kick back at Nabisco snacking on Fig Newtons.

He was the driving force in creating the company and transforming it into a modern enterprise and one of the nation’s largest employers.

In organizing and running the packaged-food giant — then called National Biscuit Co. — Green ushered in an era of national brands, coast-to-coast marketing, innovative packaging and other now-commonplace business practices.

“He recognized that it was a watershed time for the industry,” said Becky Tousey, an archivist at Mondelez International (MDLZ), the company that makes Newtons, Oreos and other top Nabisco products and had 2011 sales of $54 billion. Kraft Foods renamed itself Mondelez this year and spun off its grocery business into a separate firm called Kraft Foods Group (KRFT).

“So many things were changing in terms of transportation, distribution, automation and all of that,” she told IBD. “Looking back on it now, he really was one of those transformational leaders.”

The Boss of the Biscuit Bakers, as one writer called him, stressed that hard work drove results. He once told a reporter that successful people “must love to struggle” and “must love the game of life.”

Tough Start

Green (1843-1917) had no unfair advantage as he started the game of life. Born in Boston, he was the youngest of 11 children. His father was an Irish immigrant who worked as a boot maker and died while Adolphus was still young.

Green’s mother ran a boarding house to support the family after her husband’s death.

She placed great emphasis on education, according to William Cahn in his book “Out of the Cracker Barrel: The Nabisco Story, From Animal Crackers to ZuZus.”

That classroom push helps explain how Green managed to graduate from the highly regarded Boston Latin School as well as Harvard, the latter in 1863.

After college, Green worked as a teacher and school administrator in Massachusetts for one year.

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He then moved to New York City and joined the Mercantile Library Association, which aimed to help clerks with their education.

Green kept striving. He secured the position of chief clerk with a New York law firm and after four years passed the bar exam.

Then it was off to Chicago in the early 1870s to set up a law practice.

He became a well-regarded attorney in the Windy City into the 1880s, serving for a time as a lawyer for the Chicago Board of Trade.

His shift from lawyer to biscuit boss began as regional bakery owners approached him for advice. The bakers had noticed a trend toward profitable corporations.

“The bakers, accustomed to traditional methods and ways of doing business, realized they must change with the times,” wrote Cahn.

Green jumped into learning about the biscuit business and found it ripe for innovation, noted Cahn.

Biscuits were sold in cracker barrels rather than packages, which would keep them fresh. Bakeries weren’t organized to exploit economies of scale. There were no national brands.

That all changed with Green.

First, Green took the lead in organizing the bakery owners into the Chicago-based American Biscuit & Manufacturing Co. and the Philadelphia-based U.S. Baking Co. That happened in 1889 and 1890.

Green battled New York Biscuit Co. in selling cookies and crackers throughout America and ultimately achieved a merger with his rival in 1898, forming National Biscuit Co., later shortened to Nabisco.

He became the merged entity’s first chairman, then assumed the role of president as he finally set aside his legal work.

As company leader, Green dug into crucial details, says Tousey. “He was probably too much of a micromanager, although it seemed to have good effects,” she said.

The boss handpicked the name for National Biscuit Co.’s first big product — Uneeda Biscuit. He was involved in developing this product’s innovative wax paper and cardboard packaging, the patented In-er-seal carton.

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Uneeda — pushed with slogans like “Do you know Uneeda Biscuit?” — was a hit.

Green spent what was then big money on Uneeda ads so it would become a household name.

It did. By 1900, Americans were buying 10 million packages of Uneeda Biscuits each month, dwarfing sales of other packaged crackers.

That laid the foundation for other blockbuster products. Green was involved in nationwide launches of the Newton, Oreo, Barnum’s Animal Crackers and many other cookies and snacks.

Beyond focusing on freshness, strong brands and ad budgets, Green improved his company’s bakeries and distribution methods.

“Green pioneered the idea of using a direct sales force in the food business rather than a middleman, dispatching salesmen to push Nabisco products across the country,” wrote Bryan Burrough and John Helyar in “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco.”

Straight Ahead

While Green wanted National Biscuit Co. to profit, he often spoke about achieving success the right way. Take what he said at a luncheon speech in New York in 1904, according to Fame, a trade publication for the advertising industry.

He said: “In a day when the management of great enterprises is rapidly passing from the hands of individuals to corporate control, it is no small thing to try to build up a great corporation upon such lines of honesty and economy, combined with courageous enterprise, as will make it stand as a pattern to others and deserve the respect and confidence of the world.”

In that speech, he also told his company’s managers to “bear yourselves as men of decency, of honesty, of character” and “do nothing to disgrace or discredit that emblem that you carry with you.”

The Nabisco emblem, still used today, had been selected by Green himself. He picked a “medieval Italian printers’ symbol consisting of a cross with two bars and an oval, representing the triumph of the moral and spiritual over the evil and the material,” wrote Burrough and Helyar.

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Tousey, the Mondelez archivist, notes that although Green didn’t use the modern term “corporate social responsibility,” he hinted at it.

Ethical Legacy

“He was, from our perspective as a company, an inspirational leader that we can point to with pride,” Tousey said. “He embodied the kind of values that we try to embody today — quality, transparency, being a good corporate citizen and doing business ethically.”

Green described his company as a “great family,” and Burrough and Helyar said he “made Nabisco a benevolent employer.”

The authors added: “Within three years of its founding, he installed a system for the company’s employees to buy stock on cut-rate terms, making them what he called ‘associate proprietors.’ He refused to employ child labor in an era when it was common. And although he expected his workers to churn out America’s snacks from dawn to dusk, in brutally hot and often hazardous bakeries, he also felt responsible for providing them nutritious meals.”

Cahn argues that Green was “something of an enlightened autocrat” but who ended up having limited contact with the world of working men and women.

Green was probably a workaholic, Tousey says. He remained National Biscuit Co.’s president until his death at age 73.

He died after becoming ill during a trip to check on company facilities in the South, part of his effort to inspect all plants and offices regularly.

He traveled thousands of miles in his final two years for these inspections, reported the New York Times upon his death:

He “kept in touch with his business affairs up to the last.”

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