CHAPTER XII

MR. PONZI PROMOTES "THE TRADER'S GUIDE" WITH A 3,000,000 CIRCULATION RIGHT OFF THE BAT

When I rented the School Street office, it was my intention to become a commission agent for domestic and foreign firms. A sort of foreign department, especially for those who could not afford to maintain one of their own. And I can say that I possessed the qualifications to give satisfaction. But I had no connections. Either in the United States or abroad. So I set about to make them. Through the medium of circulars. Only to realize that between the cost of overheads, stationery and postage, they stood me from five cents for the domestic to eight cents each for the foreign circulars. Entirely too much money. At that rate, my limited resources would have faded away to nothing before I had obtained any appreciable returns.

I looked around for a less expensive way to reach my prospects. I studied the expediency of advertising. Especially in foreign trade publications. And soon I became convinced the field was inadequately covered. The leading foreign trade publication had, at that time, a circulation of barely 50,000 copies per month. Its advertising rates were utterly out of proportion to the services it rendered. Evidently, what was needed was a new publication which could offer a greater circulation at lower rates. So, I devised such a publication. In all of its details. I called it "The Trader's Guide". And undertook its promotion under the name of "The Bostonian Advertising & Publishing Company". A long name which only meant an additional sign on the door and new letterheads.

The first problem was that of attaining a wide circulation. World wide. Free distribution was the answer. People never refuse what does not cost them anything. It's human nature all over. But they would have no earthly use for my publication, unless they could read it. Therefore, it would have to be printed in various languages. Not in all of them. English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese would have been enough.

The matter of mailing lists was easily solved. Directories, both domestic and foreign, the U. S. Bureau of Foreign & Domestic Commerce and the U. S. Consular Service, gave me all the names I wanted. Classified in every possible way. But I couldn't undertake to mail millions of copies of each issue. The cost and the amount of work would have been prohibitive. I decided, therefore, to mail 100,000 copies every six months. And to reach each time a different set of readers. Until my mailing lists were exhausted. But it was a "Long Way to Tipperary" because I had three or more millions of names.

There is where I had to call all of my ingenuity to the rescue. In the first place, I had to keep alive the interest in the copies of The Trader's Guide already distributed. Other publications did that by publishing a new issue each month. But they covered always the same limited number of subscribers. While I had an almost unlimited number of readers to reach.

Secondly, since The Trader's Guide contained both some reading matter and some advertising of regional interest only, I had to find a way to mail into each section only what might be of local interest. For instance, an Eskimo would no more be interested in refrigerators or electric fans, than a Congo coon would be in fur coats and heating appliances.

The only way out of my difficulties was through a loose-leaf device. In fact, I picked out a cheap expansion cover with a couple of screw binder posts. I planned to mail one to each reader with only those pages of reading matter and advertising that would be of interest to him. From time to time, as new pages would be published, I intended to send them to him so that he might add them to his book. Keep it up-to-date. Each new set of 100,000 readers would receive, of course, the same cover already sent out to others and all of the pages published up to then. Such a scheme of distribution would have placed a complete and up-to-date copy of The Trader's Guide in the hands of 200,000 readers the first year, and of 200,000 new readers each year after that.

How was I going to pay for all that, if the publication was being distributed free? Easily enough. By selling advertising space. The proportion of reading matter to advertising space was 1 to 3. That is, for every page of reading matter, I would sell three pages of advertising. Could I sell it? Certainly! If other publications did, there was no reason why mine shouldn't. I had more to offer than they had, for the same money. For less money, in fact.

The leading publications at the time were asking—and getting—about $500 a page for advertising space. For each monthly issue. It reached only 50,000 subscribers. The Trader's Guide, for the same amount, would have placed the same ad before 100,000 readers. Not only this, but the loose-leaf feature gave the advertisers the means of reaching only the readers they wanted to reach, excluding all others.

Again, each issue of a monthly publication has only a 30 day existence. An issue is current until the next one is published. Then it becomes obsolete. It is usually thrown away. Or sold to the junk-man. To keep, therefore, the same page ad before the same 50,000 subscribers for one year, it would cost the advertiser $6,000. But The Trader's Guide, instead, never became obsolete. It was a book of permanent reference which had to be kept year after year, in order to put and classify the newly published pages under the same loose-leaf cover. Therefore, between paying $500 for a 30 day display, or the same amount for a permanent display, while reaching a number of readers twice as large, the advertisers could not hesitate. They would have given preference to The Trader's Guide. Because my selling arguments could not be beaten. Or even matched by my competitors.

All figured, an issue of The Trader's Guide, including cover, 50 pages of reading matter, 150 pages of advertising and postage to destination, would have stood me about 35 cents a copy. Or, $35,000 for 100,000 copies. The 150 pages of advertising would have brought in over $75,000. Advertising on the cover, probably another $5,000. The net margin of profit should have been around $15,000 for the first six months. And progressively more after that.

The Trader's Guide was a good thing. I thought so. I still think so. I said so. Everybody agreed with me and said so. Yet, nobody seemed to think enough of it to help finance it.

Among others, an ex-governor of Massachusetts. He was extremely liberal with interviews. And encouragement. But tighter than a drumhead otherwise. I could not persuade him to buy half an interest in the Guide for $5,000. I suppose he would've declined even the Boston Common at $5 an acre.

I looked for money everywhere. Found it nowhere. Nevertheless, I kept up the struggle to the end. Pawned the family jewels. Mortgaged the household furniture. I didn't sell my soul to the devil, because he found he could get it for nothing if he waited long enough for it.

In a moment of despair, I decided to apply for a loan from a bank. I must have been desperate. Or I would have known better. I applied for a $2,000 loan at the Hanover Trust Company. For several months I had carried a checking account there. Really, it was more of a pain in the neck than an account. The bank thought so. I differed. Yet, every other day, I had to race to the receiving teller's window on the stroke of nine A.M. to cover some checks which I had given out after banking hours. Although I always managed to get to the bank ahead of my checks, the bookkeeper must have had an awful time to keep up with them.

When I applied for the loan, I tried to look unconcerned. I asked for 2,000 dollars with the same inflection I would have asked change for a nickel. My application did not get very far. It never reached the loan committee, as the bank's president heard of it, and disposed of it between a couple of puffs of his cigar. The note I offered the bank as collateral failed to impress him. So did my statement that I was a depositor in his bank.

"Sorry," he said frigidly, "but I cannot approve the loan. While it is our policy to accommodate our depositors whenever we can, your account is more of a bother than a benefit to us. Good day, sir."

His last remark made me so mad that I could have spat poison. I watched him re-enter his private office. Then I left the bank muttering to myself: "Some day I'll have that bird eat out of my hand!"

A few months later the prophecy materialized. By then, I owned the Hanover Trust Company. Lock, stock and barrel. I had a $5,000,000 balance in that bank. I was only the largest stockholder, the chairman of the board of directors, and a permanent member of the executive committee.

At one of our weekly meetings, the treasurer introduced a motion to raise the president's salary. One of my men—the executive committee was just padded with them—opposed the motion. I sat there indifferently. The treasurer, peeved, suggested that the question be put to a vote. The suggestion was accepted. We voted on the basis of our stock holdings. The treasurer figured that between what he and the president owned and the proxies they held, plus the stray independent votes, they would carry the motion. But I owned 1,625 shares and controlled, by agreement, 600 more. Out of a total issue of 4,000 shares. My vote was "no".

"I am licked!" said the president after the votes were counted.

"Of course, you are!" I told him. "You licked yourself when you refused me a $2,000 loan about six months ago. Do you remember?"

"Probably not. But I have not forgotten," I went on. "You told me then that my account was more of a bother than a benefit to this bank. But you showed a deplorable lack of tact for a bank president. That small account shows today a $5,000,000 balance. More than all of the other deposits put together. After your remark of six months ago, I would have been justified in closing my account. And this bank would not have me today as a depositor. Today I am refusing your raise because I don't believe you are much of an asset to this bank."

"Then there is nothing else for me to do, but hand in my resignation," he said.

"Your resignation?" I retorted. "You can do as you please about that. But I don't see where you are in a position to resign. I own this bank. You are one of my employees. Just now, you can keep on as president. If I should at any time decide that I don't want you around, I'll fire you."

But, after this digression, let me resume the narrative. Back in my office—which, by the way had been moved to larger quarters on the second floor—from my call at the Hanover Trust, I summoned my help. Two stenographers and a boy. I informed them that their services would no longer be required after the coming Saturday. Because I could not pay their wages. They offered to remain. To work for "expectations". I could not and did not consent to it. But I was deeply touched by their loyalty.

My next step was to insert a small ad in the papers. Desk space to sublet, or something to that effect. This brought some immediate results. In less than a week I had several tenants. My rent money was taken care of. The glass door which formerly read: "Charles Ponzi, Export & Import" and "The Bostonian Adv. & Publ. Co.", with addition of new names, began to look like a directory. My dignity, perhaps, suffered somewhat. But what I lost in dignity, I gained in peace of mind.

I dismissed The Trader's Guide from my mind. Another house of cards had collapsed. That did not matter. I was getting accustomed to chasing rainbows. As one would fade away, I would pursue another. For a dreamer, I certainly was persevering. I never was a quitter. Undaunted by failure, I transferred my attention from The Trader's Guide to international reply coupons. A new rainbow had come within my range of vision. The most spectacular I ever saw. With renewed energy and enthusiasm, I chased after it. I caught up with it. When I did, I found fifteen million dollars at the end of it. I should have called it a day. And quitted while the quitting was good. I didn't. Hence, this story.