Forbes magazine marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this month. It was founded by my grandfather, B. C. Forbes, in 1917 with money he had borrowed from several leading businessmen of the day. Undoubtedly they found appealing his idea for a magazine devoted to what he called “Doers and Doings”—in other words, a magazine about them.
A look at the first issue’s contents reveals the tone as well as the approach it would take: “Keys to Unlock the Door of Success”; “How Forbes Gets Big Men to Talk—Rockefeller Interview”; “Untrumpeted Geniuses—Romantic Career of Frederic M. Halsey”; “High-Placed Misfits—George Jay Gould”; and, most unusual for that time, “Women in Business—Unique Department.” From the very beginning FORBES magazine was about people and what they did. It analyzed their successes, their failures, and their failings. It sought to inspire as well as to inform. Grandpa launched his own column, “Fact and Comment,” by admonishing the reader: “Business was originated to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.” This emphasis on business as a matter of people instead of numbers, of spirit rather than money, earned Grandpa a reputation as the humanizer of business and made the magazine itself a quick success.
In 1928 William Randolph Hearst offered a million dollars cash to buy FORBES. A million dollars was substantial money then and a heady sum indeed to an immigrant Scotsman whose formal education had ended with the eighth grade. But Grandpa turned the offer down. He was confident more growth lay ahead. A year later the stock market crashed, and in the Great Depression that followed he was able to keep FORBES alive only by using his income as a columnist for Hearst’s papers to meet the payroll and pay the printing bills.
My point here is surely not that Grandpa should have sold: FORBES survived the lean years, and under my father, Malcolm, it went on to grow well beyond anything Grandpa might have imagined. But no one knows what lies ahead. And nowhere is this truism more harshly evident than in business. Of the hundred largest American companies in 1917, less than a quarter are still around today. This cold, startling fact is testimony not only to how much the world had changed in seventy-five years but also to the pivotal role of people in making and coping with that change.
In the first issue of American Heritage , the founding editor Bruce Catton observed: ”… history so often is presented in terms of vast incomprehensible forces moving far under the surface, carrying human beings along, helpless, and making them conform to a pattern whose true shape they never see. The pattern does exist, often enough, and it is important to trace it. Yet it is good to remember that it is the people who make the pattern, and not the other way around.” A similar conviction animated FORBES in 1917. And it still animates both magazines today.