50% of something is better than 100% of nothing


          As mentioned in previous stories, my grandfather, R. L. Cox, Sr., was a wonderfully talented salesman. What was not mentioned was that the skills involved in being a good salesman are not necessarily the same as those that make someone a good at being self-employed. But any failings that R. L. Cox had in his attempts to become a self-employed entrepreneur did not arise from a lack of trying. R. L. was always working on some scheme or another, including buying cotton, making barrels, running a general store, and even raising silk worms on mulberry trees. Footnote

While he generally ended up losing money on his get-rich schemes, the scheme that cost him the most money was buying cotton during World War One. Footnote


          When the United States entered World War One, R. L. was nearly thirty years old with a wife, Winnie Eugenia McWhorter, who was seven months pregnant with their first child. As such, he felt no obligation to volunteer for France. But one consequence of World War One that did affect him was a tremendous increase in the demand for cotton. R. L. surmised that there was money to made if a man was willing to take a risk and buy cotton on credit. While R. L. probably never played a game of chance for money in his entire life, gambling on a business venture was a completely different matter in his mind. Gambling in commodities like cotton is a little like playing musical chairs, when the music stops you had better have a chair in which to sit. For cotton prices, the end of World War One was when the music stopped and in an blink of an eye R. L. found himself the owner an entire warehouse full of overpriced cotton with not a chair in sight.


          In such situations when dealing with a commodity purchased on credit, the only thing that can be done is to sell at a loss to avoid even more catastrophic losses. And this was what R. L. did, but the sale didn’t generate nearly enough funds to repay the money he had borrowed to purchase the cotton. In a matter of weeks, R. L. was buried under a mountain of debt that would take years to dig out from under. What R. L.’s exact thoughts were I don’t know, I can only imagine the despondency that any honorable man would feel at the realization he had gambled away his family’s future. But in this moment of bleakness, a tiny glimmer of light appeared.


          That glimmer of life appeared in the form of the Weil brothers from Goldsboro, NC. The man to whom R. L. was in debt owned even more money to the Weil brothers. However, this man was old, whereas R. L. was only thirty. The Weil brothers proposed a deal to R. L. They would agree to swap the debt that the old man owed them for the debt that R. L. owed the old man and R. L. would only have to pay them fifty cents on the dollar. The Weils were ready to accept half of what they were owed in order to get the debt transferred from an old man to a young man. Or to put it into modern vernacular, the Weils decided that fifty percent of something was better than one hundred percent of nothing. There was only one catch, R. L. had to convince the old man to agree to the swap.


          Like a drowning man clutching to a life preserver that had been unexpectedly thrown to him, R. L. went to visit the old man the same night as the Weils had made their generous proposition to him. As R. L. explained the details of the debt swap, the angry expression on the old man’s face told a story the R. L. didn’t want to know. Finally the old man exploded at R. L. He told R. L. to not worry about who his creditors were. He told R. L. that if R. L. paid his debts then he could pay his. He told R. L. to get out of his house and not to bother him anymore with crazy schemes to welch on his obligations. And finally, he told R. L. exactly what would happen if R. L. was even a day late on any of his payments.


          It must have been with a heavy heart that R. L. returned home that night. He probably wished that he had never raised his wife’s hopes by telling her of the Weils’ offer. But in making this wish, he underestimated Winnie’s strength and courage. Because Winnie knew about the Weils’ offer she was able to comfort him when he returned home with the old man’s rejection and denunciation still ringing in his ears. Winnie assured him that this was not the end and persuaded him that they would persevere and pull through this setback. With his spirits lifted by Winnie’s words and support, R. L. prepared for bed. Based on my recollection of R. L.’s character, I don’t believe that night he would have cursed himself for speculating on cotton or the old man for rejecting the Weils’ offer. But instead, I believe that night he offered thanks to God for sending him such a good and understanding wife.


          After R. L. and Winnie had gone to bed and were asleep, they were awaked by a knocking on their front door. R. L. quickly pulled on some clothes and went to see who was calling at such a late hour. When R. L. opened the door, he was confronted by the old man, whose wretched appearance indicated that he had spent that last several hours deep in internal turmoil. The old man told R. L. that he had changed his mind and would agree to the Weils’ proposal. He then added, “This will be the best thing for both of us.”


          Having secured the old man’s acquiescence, R. L. contacted the Weils the next day and made arrangement for the transfer of his debt to them. But the Weils were not merely content to have a younger man as a debtor. They also wanted the younger man to be able to pay the debt. To that end, the Weils became R. L.’s best customer for the fertilizer products from W. R. Grace that he sold. Because R. L. was now focused on paying off his debt, he concentrated his considerable business acumen on those things he did well and was successful beyond his dreams as a fertilizer salesman. In a period of time so short that it amazed the Weils, R. L. made enough money to pay off his debt to them.


          In fact the Weils were so impressed at how quickly R. L. repaid his debt that they decided there was money to made in the fertilizer business. As such, they purchased the Dixie Fertilizer Company and renamed it the Dixie Weil Fertilizer Company. After purchasing it, their first action was to offer R. L. the job as the general manager of the firm. While this was a very lucrative and appealing offer, R. L. turned it down. He explained that W. R. Grace had been good to him and it wouldn’t be right to leave them for a competitor. The Weils immediately understood the sincerity of this explanation and remained on friendly terms with R. L. and his family. Footnote

But I can’t help but believe that because of his string of failures at being his own boss, R. L. might have also been concerned that being a general manager did not play to his strong suit in business skills.

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