Remembering Arthur G. Gaston: A Titan’s First Step

How an unknown coal miner from birmingham, alabama,became the 20th century's preeminent entreprenuer.

$20 for the month. Of that, $15 went to rent. This left him with $10, $5 of which he would use for living expenses (essentially, food). The remaining $5 was what he would allow himself for pleasure activities. This means that Arthur was saving between 66% and 75% of his earnings on a monthly basis. Discounting the $20 that he used to pay his rent and feed himself, his budget allowed for him to spend approximately 5% of his earnings, per month, on anything that fell outside his most basic needs. Once the ladies rejected him, even that money began to earn interest.…

The high rate of interest that Arthur was charging for cash loans soon made his informal “bank” the best earner of all his many little companies. In fact, the interest was bringing in more money than all of the other businesses combined. Meanwhile, Arthur had continued his work in the mines, realizing that without his job there–and thus his access to the miners–none of his other businesses could operate. He had no desire to spend the rest of his life working night and day in Westfield, so he began to consider other business opportunities. Nothing seemed workable. Though he had created a nice nest egg for himself and for his mother, what he was searching for was the opportunity to create a self-sustaining business that would provide them with enough security to leave Westfield behind.

Gaston had begun his empire building with an eye to making money, his early businesses originating from the principles of self-benefit: He sold lunches to men not because the men would not eat otherwise, but because he determined that they would pay for a better product; he lent them money at high interest rates not because these men were starving, but because they wanted to participate in frivolities and were willing to pay a premium for an extra dollar here or there. In essence, then, little of his early moneymaking was about need–it was about fulfilling desires.

The scheme had served him well, and would have continued doing so, perhaps indefinitely. And if Arthur Gaston had been a different man, he might have been satisfied to maintain his market in the mines and retire early. But he wasn’t that man, and his dream was not to achieve middling

success, but actual greatness. The problem was, he seemed to have reached an impasse: No new markets were opening up. He racked his brain, trying to figure out what would work, what would sell–until he realized that it was his methodology that was tripping him up. Rather than figuring out what he could sell, he decided to step back and take a look at what the community he was living in actually needed. It was a turn away from self-interest and toward public service, and the change was one that would inform his business endeavors for the rest of his life.

WHAT THE COMMUNITY NEEDED
Payday at Westfield was an occasion that brought everybody to the center of town.

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