Our first 100 years.


“With all thy get­ting, get un­der­stand­ing”

The year of Forbes’ found­ing, 1917, was one of the most mo­men­tous in his­tory. The U.S. en­tered the Great War, a dra­matic break from our iso­la­tion­ist tradition. The Oc­to­ber Com­mu­nist coup in Rus­sia brought into power the first modern to­tal­i­tar­ian regime, one which would vi­o­lently chal­lenge the very ex­is­tence of cap­i­tal­ism and the lib­eral demo­cratic or­der.

To launch a new pub­li­ca­tion in the midst of a world war would strike most as folly. But B.C. Forbes, the sixth of ten chil­dren of a Scot­tish tai­lor, had long burned with am­bi­tion to be­come a busi­ness writer and, ul­ti­mately, his own boss. He first went to South Africa, where he worked for the edi­tor of the new Rand Daily Mail, Edgar Wallace, who later achieved fame in Bri­tain and the U.S. as a nov­el­ist. Many a time B.C. found him­self writ­ing editorials for his oft-ine­bri­ated boss. But South Africa was too small a pond, and in 1904 B.C. im­mi­grated to the U.S. Land­ing in New York, he had a hard time get­ting a job, but in­stead of go­ing home B.C. de­cided to of­fer his ser­vices to an edi­tor for free for sev­eral weeks to “prove my worth.” He had no idea whether he would be tossed out when, af­ter the al­lot­ted time, he would ask for a salary, but like any en­tre­pre­neur, he knew that do­ing things the “nor­mal” way would get him nowhere. He got the job. Full of en­ergy, B.C. as­sumed a nom de plume and, at the same time, ob­tained a job with another pub­li­ca­tion, also as a busi­ness writer. Le­gend has it that the two ed­i­tors later got into an ar­gu­ment over who had the bet­ter busi­ness re­porter—it was B.C. in both cases.

B.C. be­came a na­tion­ally renowned fi­nan­cial writer, not only re­port­ing and turn­ing out a syn­di­cated col­umn but also au­thor­ing books. Yet, in­stead of just writ­ing about in­di­vid­u­als who started their own firms, he itched to start one him­self. And be­ing a Scots­man, B.C. hated not us­ing all the ma­te­rial he gath­ered. (He would have loved be­ing able to blog to his heart’s con­tent.) He felt the time had come to start his own pub­li­ca­tion. It was orig­i­nally ti­tled Do­ers and Do­ings, but B.C. was per­suaded to use his sur­name, a not-un­com­mon prac­tice in those days.

B.C. Forbes deeply be­lieved in what we to­day call en­tre­pre­neur­ial cap­i­tal­ism. He loved chron­i­cling the do­ings of busi­ness lead­ers—the bolder, the bet­ter. He was no apol­o­gist, how­ever. He railed against those he felt were abus­ing em­ploy­ees or were in­com­pe­tently man­ag­ing their firms. He stated in the first is­sue of Forbes, “Busi­ness was orig­i­nated to pro­duce hap­pi­ness, not to pile up mil­lions.” He had no truck with the no­tion that we are ul­ti­mately gov­erned by im­per­sonal forces.

Forbes boomed dur­ing the 1920s. Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst, the me­dia mogul who was the model for Or­son Welles’ clas­sic film Cit­i­zen Kane, of­fered to buy B.C.’S cre­ation in 1928 for what to­day would be the equiv­a­lent of tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. B.C. proudly turned him down. He soon had cause to won­der if he’d made a cat­a­strophic mis­take.

Forbes was hit hard by the De­pres­sion. By 1932, the com­pany was bank­rupt in all but name, as ad­ver­tis­ing had con­tracted more than 80%. B.C. kept his cre­ation alive through his free­lance earn­ings—he was still a colum­nist for the Hearst pa­pers—and by in­sti­tut­ing what was dubbed “Scotch week”: Every fourth week em­ploy­ees went with­out a pay­check, which meant a 25% pay cut. But in those des­per­ate times peo­ple were happy just to have a job. B.C. him­self didn’t cash any of his pay­checks for sev­eral years.

Barely sur­viv­ing the De­pres­sion, Forbes limped along dur­ing the 1930s, over­shad­owed by Busi­nessweek (owned then by Mcgraw-hill) and For­tune (Time Inc.). In 1945, B.C.’S son Mal­colm (MSF) joined Forbes af­ter be­ing dis­charged from the Army, where he’d been badly wounded while serv­ing as a ma­chine-gun­ner. Another son, Bruce, was al­ready at the com­pany.

At the time Forbes’ con­tent was mostly made up of free­lance pieces. MSF be­gan the process of hir­ing full-time edi­to­rial staffers, rightly be­liev­ing that this would dra­mat­i­cally im­prove the edi­to­rial prod­uct. He also launched The Forbes In­vestor, a weekly news­let­ter that rec­om­mended stocks and an­a­lyzed the pre­vi­ous week’s mar­ket news. The price of the news­let­ter was an out­land-

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