The Greatest Salesman You Never Heard Of

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When one of America’s greatest salesmen and entrepreneurs launched his career, it was announced in the press by the Boston newspaper in 1806, under the following story: “No Joke. A vessel with a cargo of 80 tons of ice has cleared out from this port for Martinique. We hope this will not prove to be a slippery speculation.”

A young man named Frederic Tudor was testing an idea that was suggested to him at a party the previous summer, when he was enjoying a drink cooled by ice stored in an icehouse during the winter before.

Tudor came from a well-to-do Boston family, and was the first of his brothers not to attend Harvard College. Instead, he went to work at age 13, but he was not destined to work for a salary. At the age of 21 he got the crazy idea that he could cut blocks of ice from ponds surrounding Boston and ship it to the Caribbean.

His first stop was Martinique, then under French control. He had sent his brother William ahead to try to secure a monopoly, which he achieved by bribing a secretary, but William otherwise did little to prepare for the arrival of the first shipment. Martinique did not work out so well, but the experience he gained there helped him establish a market in Cuba. In the ensuing years he set up markets in Charleston, New Orleans, and Savannah, with various levels of success.

When he embarked on his enterprise, Tudor began a notebook, and his first entry read:

“He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow despairs of success has never been, is not and never will be, a hero in war, love, or business.”

These were brave words, but it almost did prove to be a slippery speculation and if he knew then how much he was going to need that mindset, he may have stuck to working for someone else. Plagued by bad partners, occasional poor judgment, debtor’s prison, and the little matter of the War of 1812, he struggled for almost 20 years before he finally became consistently successful. In those days, when you couldn’t pay your creditors you were thrown in jail until your friends and relatives could raise the money to get you out. At one point, Tudor was sitting in a jail cell until his friends could raise the money to have him released; as he contemplated his surroundings, he wrote: “I smiled to think that anyone should believe I was beaten.”

In the end, he finally overcame all obstacles and became wealthy, selling an item that at home was at best a commodity and at worst a nuisance. He sold ice as far abroad as Calcutta and Bombay and became known as The Ice King. By the time of Tudor’s death in 1864, ice exporting had become a hugely successful global business. From the first shipment of 130 tons in 1806, the trade grew to 146,000 tons in 1856.

Unquestionably, Tudor’s perseverance and grit were critical factors in his success. But it was his selling approach that finally made him successful. Tudor’s main selling challenge was to transform ice from a novelty item into a necessity. How did he do it? He demonstrated remarkably sophisticated sales techniques that we would recognize today. Although he might have benefited from a little more tact, his example of insight selling in Martinique two centuries before its time is worth quoting at length:

“The man who keeps the Tivoli garden insisted ice creams could not be made in this country & that the ice itself would all thaw before he could get it home! …so putting my fist down pretty hard upon the table I called for a pen & ink. I wrote an order for 60 lbs. of ice & in a pretty warm tone directed the man to have his cream ready & that I would come & freeze it for him in the morning which I did accordingly being determined to spare no pains to convince these people that they can not only have ice but all the luxuries arising as well here as elsewhere. The Tivoli man recd. for these creams the first night $300 – after this he was as humble as a mushroom & shrugging up his shoulders said he knew nothing hoped monsieur would take some coffee – some liqueurs. ‘Devil take your coffee.’ Said I & came home.”

But his main customers were the coffee-house keepers, and he showed a deep understanding of his their business success factors by insisting that bartenders not charge a premium for adding ice to drinks. By holding the price steady for a superior offering, they could draw business away from other bars in town, which in turn clamored to become customers in the next season. Even better, the bar patrons became hooked on cold drinks. Tudor estimated that it took about three years in a location to establish the cold-drink habit.

He also had to educate consumers. At his first stop in Martinique, he complained that customers bought the ice and took it home without insulation, and then returned to complain that it had melted in the tropical heat! He had to explain that they had to insulate it in blankets, and then sold them the blankets at $1 each. Tudor also developed a “little icehouse” for the home which ran on three pounds of ice per day and ensured constant demand.

Tudor was constantly innovating. He came up with an idea for a cooling jar which allowed bartenders to produce more cold water cheaply; he experimented with different ways to build icehouses; he tinkered with better ship designs. On the production side, his employee Andrew Wyeth devised better methods of cutting the ice from the New England ponds, which improved efficiencies and standardized block sizes.

With perseverance, innovation, and customer insight, Frederic Tudor single-handedly created a lucrative industry using sales practices that were way ahead of their time. He truly was one of the great salesmen in American history.

Tudor deserves to be better remembered, and the best part of this story is that Tudor Ice is making a revival. The modern-day inheritors of the Tudor Ice company are setting out to prove that you can sell a commodity at a premium…but that’s a story for a future article.

Note:

If you want to learn more about Tudor’s remarkable career, here are two valuable sources:

The Ice King: Frederic Tudor and His Circle, by Carl Seaburg and Stanley Patterson

Crystal Blocks of Yankee Coldness, Philip Smith

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