4.3 Harry Walker & Sons Ltd
Harry Walker & Sons, jute spinners and manufacturers, was founded in 1873 by Harry Walker, after he had split up with his brother (J. & H. Walker is no. 60 in Warden’s 1864 list). A modern factory, the Caldrum works, was built (see Figure 4). The firm became a limited company in 1892 with a paid-up capital of £150,000, divided between 10,000 £10 ordinary shares and 5,000 £10 preference shares. The directors were Harry Walker, his sons, and later his grandsons, and they and their spouses and daughters held virtually all the shares.
Among the business records that have survived, the most informative are probably the balance sheets and annual reports for the period after incorporation. Balance sheets need to be seen as a primary source like any other: the same questions about authorship, purpose and audience are relevant. In the case of a company like Harry Walker & Sons, with no outside shareholders, such questions throw up some interesting answers: the ‘authors’ (officially, the directors) and the ‘audience’ (the shareholders) were virtually the same. Although accounts had to be audited, in this period there was no requirement to publish them. In the case of Harry Walker & Sons, the balance sheets that have been preserved are handwritten and amendments have been made on the documents. They give every appearance of being for use within the firm only. The balance sheets of public companies in this period were notoriously unreliable, but, in a privately owned firm such as this one, there were few advantages to be gained from concealing results (Arnold, 1995). We can perhaps see them as the directors’ own assessment of their situation.
Figures 5 and 6 (above) are charts based on figures from the balance sheets and annual reports.
- Do the charts suggest that Harry Walker & Sons was profitable?
- What happened to the value of the works, as compared with ‘cash and investments’?
- What do the charts suggest was done with the profits?
- Yes, Figure 5 shows that profits were made in every year except 1909; 1907 and 1913 were particularly good years.
- The value of the works declined gently until around 1900 and were then roughly stable until a big drop in 1912. The value of cash and investments, on the other hand, rose irregularly to around 1908. By 1914, they had exceeded the value of the works for seven of the last nine years. A curious inversion for a manufacturing company!
- Figure 6 shows the amount the company paid out to ordinary shareholders. From 1895 to 1905, ordinary dividends were held steady at 7.5 per cent and later 10 per cent. (10 per cent dividends meant that the company paid out 10 per cent of the face value of the ordinary shares, i.e. £1 per share). As we know from Figure 5, this was a period when ‘cash and investments’ were rising. The figures suggest that not all profits were paid out and money was kept in the firm for the first 15 years. After 1906, policy seems to have changed. Higher dividends were paid, transferring profits from the firm to the family.
We do need to treat the figures with caution. In particular, too little allowance was probably made for depreciation in the value of the works. It is possible that concerns about this led to the big drop in 1912, when £25,226 was suddenly written off. The figures also do not tell us what turnover was required to generate these profits, but there can be no doubt that Harry Walker & Sons was profitable. When things were going well, big profits were made and even in years of crisis, such as 1892 (remember ‘The Dundee local trade in 1892’ document in Exercise 9), they still broke even. From 1895 on, despite the ups and downs of the jute industry, they never missed a dividend.
How did they do it? The balance sheets and the annual reports suggest a number of factors:
- They were good at holding down costs. The annual reports in the 1890s often report short-time working and machines kept idle. When demand was slack, they reduced the hours worked and their wages bill. As Figure 5 shows, in most years more was written off the value of the works than was invested in them. With little investment and few debts, they could afford to sit out downturns in the trade.
- They held large and fluctuating stocks of jute. We already know that good buying was essential to success. The company’s large cash reserves mean that it could afford to buy when prices were good and hold stocks. The figures in their balance sheets suggest they held, on average, 8,000 tons of jute – 45,000 of the bales in Figure 7 – in the years between 1892 and 1914. Interestingly, the only loss followed a decision to write down stocks – presumably following a wrong guess on price movements.
- Since all the shareholders were family, pressure to pass on profits through high dividends may have been less. Directors could choose to hold profits in the firm, or, as after 1906, transfer them to the family.