Dear Son William

A heart-felt letter written to P&G's co-founder from his father reveals how a great loss led to great success
Thursday, November 1, 2012 8:04 am EDT

Mid 19th Century oil painting of Blackman Street in London — the time and place where William Procter opened his woolens store. (Painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw)

In all of its unpleasantness, adversity plays as much a role in shaping a company’s future as success.

One such example — a crushing blow to one of P&G’s original founders before the Company was ever established — would prove to be deeply significant to P&G’s very existence, let alone its success.

For the young William Procter, the abrupt and untimely end to his budding business venture in England in 1831 led to his decision to leave London for America, where he would first meet — and form his momentous partnership with — a young Irishman named James Gamble in 1837.

How did Procter’s business fail?

Throughout the 1820s, William Procter had been developing his business acumen as a dry goods dealer in Wolverhampton, England — a market town outside of Birmingham known at that time for woolen goods trade. He then decided to open his own woolens shop in the heart of London toward the end of 1831.

Things were off to a good start in London. Then, two devastating events struck his very young business sometime between November 25, 1831 and early January 1832. We know from later writings that his shop sustained first a fire, then a robbery in close succession — decimating his assets and leaving him destitute almost overnight.

News of William’s abrupt and untimely loss sent shock waves through the Procter family, prompting a heart-felt letter from his father, Willam Procter, Sr., a minister living in Orleton, Ludlow England at the time.

In a letter dated January 11, 1832, Procter’s father seemed to weep over his son’s loss as he penned these words:

“Some time ago I wrote about half a letter in answer to yours of the 25th of November, but, between the business of the Parson, and the Parish, I had not time to finish it, before I had the melancholy news of your great loss. I then had to congratulate you on an increase in your business. I now have to condole you on your misfortune, a misfortune but too likely to afflict the whole family. It is but poor consolation to you, to say how sorry we all are not only for your present loss, but also for your gloomy prospects, as in all probability you will not recover the loss for some years.”

The elder Procter’s letter goes on to offer practical advice and business prospects to consider — including a strong commendation of the idea of moving to America:

“We are quite pleased with the accounts from America, your mother so much so, that there is nothing she says but the water that prevents her going there…”

But best of all, like any good father, William Procter, Sr. offered his son a forward-looking hope — a hope that adversity can bring resilience, leadership and wisdom like no other experience can:

“An old sailor that has split upon a sunk rock and has lost his ship is not the worst man to make a pilot of; on the contrary he is particularly able to guide those that come after, to shun the dangers of that unhappy plan.”

It’s possible that these very words were what prompted Procter to persevere and not let his shipwreck stop him. Determined to rebuild his life and repay his creditors, he and his wife sailed to the New World later that year, setting in motion the circumstances that would lead to the partnership that bears his name to this day.

The Long Blue P&G Line that has endured for 177 years has had its share of adversity — adversity that would have altered the Company’s course for the worse had it not happened. Though it was undoubtedly painful for the young William Procter to suffer as he did, we can look back on the ‘old sailor’ — whose ship split upon a sunk rock 180 years ago — and be grateful for the gift of guidance adversity granted him.

Out of his tremendous loss which brought with it a greater sense of purpose, the spirit of William Procter has lived on to inspire generations of P&Gers after him to touch and improve more everyday moments than he would have ever dreamed possible.

Photo: Mid 19th Century oil painting of Blackman Street in London — the time and place where William Procter opened his woolens store. (Painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw)

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