Sir John Moores - Liverpool's First Billionaire
Sir John Moores CBE (25th January 1896 – 25th September 1993), is a man Whose legacy will forever be knitted into the fabric of 21st century Liverpool. Moores is best known as the inventor of the football pools, and founder of what was at one time Europe’s biggest private retail company, Littlewoods. He was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, lover of the arts, working class and a conservative councillor. His rags to riches tale was not one of luck, nepotism, or an advantageous private school education, but more a story of foresight; dogged determination, and business acumen born of life experience.
There was a time everybody in Liverpool knew exactly who Sir John Moores was. In 1992, when Liverpool’s polytechnic became Liverpool John Moores University, press at the open day asked the new students if they knew who the then 96-year-old Sir John Moores was. “Oh, aye, yeah, 'course I know who he is. Wanna know how I gorra place here? I Put eight score draws on me application form, and made a telephone claim for 22 points.” Came one reply. So, how did the second of eight children, born into a working-class family, in the urban industrial landscape of Barton Upon Irwell; become the 2nd wealthiest man in Britain, and the 9th wealthiest man in the world?
At 12 years old, Moores got his first paying job, getting up at the crack of dawn to deliver milk, before starting his school day. His Mother and father though hardworking, had eight mouths to feed, and times were hard. Moores mother drilled the value of money into him at an early age. If he wanted something, (Crayola’s or a cricket bat) his mother would pay only half the cost, the rest he would have to save until he could afford whatever it was he had an eye on.
At 14 Moores had already left school, and was working as a messenger boy at the post office, for six shillings per week. Moores found the job monotonous, he was ambitious, curious of mind and wanted to leave the constraints of poverty behind. An avid reader, Moores spare time was spent studying the biographies of successful business men like John D Rockefeller. Moores could be hard headed, and it wasn’t long before he found himself fired from the post office for insubordination. Little matter, Moores was always thinking ahead, he’d already been studying to become a telegraphist, and at the age of 16 he found a job with the Commercial Cable Company.
On the 28th of July 1914, ‘World War I’ broke out. Moores profession meant he didn’t have to enlist, but he volunteered to serve as a telegraphist for the Royal Navy, and was stationed in Aberdeen. The first sure signs that Moores had developed a head for business, came just after the end of ‘World War I’. The war had killed over 17 million people, and traumatised a generation, but just before the war ended, further tragedy struck; when Moores father who by then had developed a drinking problem, died from tuberculosis in January 1919.
Moores need to make money was more urgent than ever, with his father gone he felt a great sense of responsibility toward his widowed mother Louisa. In 1920 his skills as a touch typist and telegraphist, saw him posted to the Waterville Cable Company in County Kerry Island, it was here Moores set up his first business. Food was still being rationed, meat and vegetables were hard to come by, but the outspoken Moores complained about the food staff were being served at Waterville. He was elected Mess President, and set about making some changes. Moores understood that buying all goods from one supplier made no business sense. He believed adding the element of competition between suppliers, would drive down costs and improve the quality of staff meals, he was right. Moores spotted another money-making opportunity, there was no public library in County Kerry, so he decided to set up a shop. The shop sold books and stationary, alongside golf balls, another good decision, as Kerry had a golf course but no sports shop. As Mess President, Moores no longer had to pay for his meals, with the cash he saved on meals combined with the shops takings, Moores was able to save £1000 in a little over a year.
Littlewoods Gambling & Retail Empire:
In 1922, the Waterville Cable Company sent Moores back to England Liverpool, the city he would come to call home and spend the rest of his life in. It was here he met John Jervis Barnard, Barnard had devised a 'Football Pool', which at the time was not turning a profit. Moores having been a lifelong football fan, and an amateur footballer himself, felt football and betting were a good match. Though Barnard had not managed to turn a profit, Moores decided this would be his next money-making venture, and that he could, and would; do it better than Barnard. Moores persuaded two of his friends from his post office days, Colin Askham, and Bill Hughes, to join him in his new business venture. The friends thought about naming the business after Moores, but later in life Moores would recall, "Calling it the John Moores or John Smith's football pool sounded a bit dodgy". Moores, Askham, and Hughes all worked for the Commercial Cable Company, who did not allow any outside employment; if any one of them named the business after themselves they may have been fired. However, Askham had been adopted by an aunt after the death of both his parents, and it was she who changed his surname to Askham, his given name was in fact Colin Henry Littlewood; and so, in 1923 the 'Littlewoods Football Pool' was born. All three men invested a sum of £50 into the venture. £50 was a huge sum of money in 1923, but Moores was determined to go ahead, though as he signed his cheque at the bank his hands became damp, he was very conscious of the fact £50 was an awful lot of money to risk. Moores decided to print off 4000 coupons, and sell them outside the ‘Old Trafford’, Moores handed the coupons out himself, as he hadn’t been able to source a distributor. Only 35 coupons were returned, with bets totalling a paltry £4 7s 6d, the amount wouldn’t even cover expenses. Moores didn't waver, his solution was to print more coupons, this time 10,000. The coupons were handed out in Hull before a big draw match, only 1 of the 10,000 coupons was returned, and the business once again lost money. For the next two years the venture would not turn a profit, Moores found himself in many meetings with his business partners, who wanted to cut their losses and run. In 1925, Askham and Hughes called a meeting, by this time each of the men had personally invested £200 into the 'Littlewoods Football Pool', and had seen no return. Askham and Hughes felt the best thing to do was close the business down and chalk it up to bad luck, but Moores held firm, he said he would give the men £200 each if they sold him their shares, Moores was now in business alone. Moores stubborn streak would eventually pay off, in 1928 the 'Littlewoods Football Pool' finally took off. However, gambling was frowned upon, and when the 'Littlewoods Football Pool' started to become successful, Moores, who had always been a private man; found himself under fire. Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, publicly attacked Moores and his football pools idea, he was quoted as saying, “The pools is a disease which spread downwards to the industrious poor, from the idle rich”. The statement didn’t effect Moores, or his business, and by 1932 Moores had turned his first million. Moores had done what he had set out to do, he’d proved to himself he could turn a loss-making business into a very profitable one, but he was once again restless. Always looking for a challenge, always searching out his next money spinning venture, Moores left the pools business in the hands of his brother Cecil. On the 23rd of January 1932, confident he’d learnt enough to run any business, Moores diversified into retail, and started up the Littlewoods Mail Order Store. In 1930’s Liverpool, unemployment was rife, and obtaining credit was almost impossible for the cash strapped. Most catalogues at that time sold luxury upmarket goods, which were unaffordable for the working classes. Moores, shrewd as ever, decided to offer a range of practical items such as blankets, towels and other ordinary household goods; which would be paid for using a ‘turn club’ system. Customers could join the club, and each pay just one shilling per week, over 20 weeks, and each week one of the club members would receive their goods. It was a savvy business model, as the ‘Turn Club’ system meant the business had no debt. The catalogue was an overnight success, as poor families rushed to take advantage of the affordable and fair credit terms. Moores ensured success by writing to his 20.000 Football Pools subscribers, he invited each and every one of them to become catalogue agents, they would distribute the goods and collect payments, by 1936 Moores had turned his second million. A year later, Moores opened the first ever Littlewoods department store, by 1939 he owned 25 shop fronts, by 1952 he owned 50.
Moores believed in equality, opportunity and education for all, he once said, “Men and women can, if they want to enough, do anything”. In 1933, Moores who had developed a keen interest in politics, was elected Conservative Councillor for Sefton, he felt he could make a difference to the lives of ordinary people in Liverpool, he was well liked; and held his seat until 1940. Moores had many hobbies, not only was he an amateur footballer, he was a keen amateur painter to. When asked how he had started painting he said, “I started painting because I have always admired painters. Naples and Las Palmas inspired me, I went with a friend to Las Palmas, we would pass the time drawing and painting”. Moores entered the open class in the Liverpool Academy's Annual Exhibition, but his painting was not selected for inclusion. Wanting to give artists outside of London more opportunities, he founded the John Moores Painting Prize in 1957. The event was held at the Walker Art Gallery, it was supposed to be a one-time thing, but as with most of Moores endeavours, it was such a success it became a biennial event; which is still held today. Moores, wishing to do more for his community, became chairman of the Liverpool Motorists Outing for Handicapped Children in 1956. The organisation funded schools for the handicapped, and provided deprived and disabled children with days out. Moores was a great believer in the creation of opportunity for all, leading him to invest in many of Liverpool’s institutions and facilities. In 1963, Moores funded the school of business management at Liverpool University. In 1960, Moores gave up his chairmanship of the 'Football Pools' business, and handed the reins to his brother Cecil, so he could become the director of 'Everton Football Club'. It came to light some time later, that during his first few months as director, he personally lent the club £56,000, so they could buy some decent players. You’ve heard the phrase (taxi for…….) particularly when football managers are under fire. That phrase came about when Moores famously sacked Jackie Carey in the back of a black cab. Moores was logical, stoic, and astute, he was also not afraid of confrontation. The tale goes, Moores invited a young reporter from the Liverpool post over to his home. This reporter had written several scathing articles on Everton and their performances. When the young man got there, Moores did not treat him to tea and biscuits, but gave the young reporter the dressing down of his life. Moores supposedly threatened him, saying, “write anything more like that and you'll never work in this town again”. In April 1970, Moores was made a Freeman of the place he loved and had contributed so much to, the city of Liverpool. In 1972, he was made a CBE, in 1978, he was awarded the first Gold Medal for achievement; and in June 1980 he was knighted, in honour of his war work and many charitable efforts.
Today, there is not much in Liverpool that has not been touched in some way by Moores legacy. At the age of 84, Moores was found in a reflective mood by the reporter who'd turned up to interview him. When asked what drove him all those years he said, “My will to succeed was strong, very strong indeed. I had to succeed, my idea of getting on was to escape poverty. When I was a boy, life was pretty tough. I came from a fairly big family and my mother used to push me hard and say, you must study, and you must do so and so”.
When asked what he’d learned about business through the years he replied, “You have to be hard at times, and sometimes you have to be a bastard. I am never frightened to put my hand in the fire, I will come and show you how to do your job. I might not make a success of it, but I might give you some ideas”.
When asked for his views on happiness, his reply was very telling. It seemed even at 84, Moores was still haunted by the ghost of his father’s alcoholism, after a long pause he said, “I don't smoke. I drink only wine with meals, not that I am against drink. It is a great pity that wherever you go people want to give you alcohol. I think it has ruined a lot of men's lives”.
When asked for his opinion on life, Moores became thoughtful and said, “I regard human life almost like the flame of a candle. The flame is always changing, it is a good job we do die off and become nothing. Last year’s flowers have to die to allow this years to come. So, whether I am part of a future life, I do not know, and I'm not interested. I want to do the best I can, enjoy myself and help others”. At the time of his death on the 25th of September 1993, Sir John Moores, the second of eight children, son of a bricklayer and mill worker, a man with little formal education; had created a dynasty, changed a city, and amassed a fortune of over 1.5 billion.