Howard Brooks

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Howard Brooks

Howard Brooks

When he became president, Taylor put men of his own calibre in high positions. One of them was Howard K. Brooks, his devoted friend who had followed him all the way from Wisconsin to Chicago and on to New York. Brooks played an important role in shaping the American Express Company as it is today. He was an enthusiast for Money Orders, and he devoted immense energy to building up the Travellers Cheques. He also took a great interest in the foreign-exchange business. Though he had nothing but an elementary-school education, he wrote the first important textbook on foreign exchange in the United States and lectured on the subject at the University of Chicago. His imagination and initiative were powerful factors in building up the Travel Department, and he pursued his friend, George Taylor, until he accomplished this purpose.

It was Brooks who put American Express into the lucrative business of collecting bills for the public-utility companies. He suggested the idea to his friend, young Samuel Insull of Chicago. Insull made a different proposal. "You've got a swell idea, Howard," he said, "but why don't you form your own company and cash in on it? In a couple of years you can be making twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars a year. I'll give you a contract right now."

"I work for American Express," Brooks said, "so I guess we'd better let them do it."

American Express is still doing it.

Brooks was Taylor's chosen companion - they were together days, nights, and Sundays. He was a small, handsome man with an aquiline profile and always wore well-tailored clothes. He worked like a navvy all day and liked to stay up all night. No one knew when he slept.

Brooks brought in other enterprising young men. He set up an advertising department and engaged Douglas Malcolm, a brilliant young chap explosive with ideas, to handle it. There is an old photograph of this transition era that shows a group of Express officials in staid business clothes, all except young Malcolm, who is wearing a Norfolk jacket.

Brooks also brought in Ralph E. Towle, who had been manager of the Bureau of University Travel of Boston, to head the newly organized Travel Department. Towle was a New England farm boy with a passion for travel. He set up a real travel service for American Express, complete with guided tours, cruises, and all the other conveniences, and managed that department until his retirement in 1940.

Another man who helped to guide the American Express Company through the transition period was Robert E. M. Cowie, who as vice-president in charge of the Eastern Department was second-in-command to Taylor. Cowie was an untypical Scot who loved publicity and delighted in making speeches. He could talk brilliantly on any subject at any time, and with his hearty, genial manner and personal magnetism was one of the greatest salesmen who ever represented American Express.

Finally there was Frederick P. Small, of rare personality and ability, at that time assistant to the president and secretary of the company, who was destined to lead American Express through two difficult decades.

When Taylor and his energetic associates came into office, the period of transition had already begun. The golden days of the express business were ending in a storm of government regulation and competition. Two hard blows were struck even before Taylor took over. One was the Mann-Elkins Act which in 1910 declared express companies to be common carriers subject to the regulation and rate making of the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the other was the inauguration of parcel post on January 1, 1913. Both of these moves were inevitable and even overdue; nevertheless, they dimmed the sun of prosperity for the express companies.

President Taylor had been in office less than two months when war broke out in Europe. The manner in which American Express met the challenge has already been described, but a large measure of the success of its European representatives in that emergency was due to the energetic manner in which the home office backed them up.

When the European situation was clarified, Taylor and his associates had time to study the domestic situation. An early decision of the new administration, ratified at a directors' meeting on February 9, 1916, was to build a new headquarters at 65 Broadway. The old building had served them well, but it was no longer adequate to the rapidly expanding business of the company, nor did it comply with the new building ordinances of the city of New York.

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WHEN J. C. FARGO wrote his brief resignation, an era ended for American Express. It was typified by the sombre, dignified portraits of the former presidents that hung on the walls at 65 Broadway. The new president, George Chadbourne Taylor, made a symbolic gesture when he ordered the pictures taken down and presented to various institutions that wanted them.

Taylor was as different from his predecessor as any two men born in the same country could be. He was florid and handsome, with a long, beautifully shaped head and smiling eyes. He was physically quick, quick in judgment and action, a man who would jump up from behind his desk to meet one at the door of his office. He was quick, too, of temper; his anger was spectacular and his language scorching. A warm and friendly man who could curse you out for a mistake and make you love him while he did it. Once he said to Ralph Towle, who then headed the Travel Department, "Ralph, if you want to... see: THE EXPRESS COMPANIES COMBINE

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