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-