Never despair, keep pushing on! Sir Thomas Lipton

A full cup : Sir Thomas Lipton’s extraordinary life and his quest for the America’s Cup  Michael D’Antonio  New York : Riverhead Books, 2010  Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 354 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.  Includes bibliographical references (p. [325]-341) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG


Sir Thomas Lipton, who died in 1931, created the first chain of grocery stores as well as the enduring tea that still carries his name, but he is remembered most for his epic pursuit of the Cup. Even though all five of his campaigns were unsuccessful, they did much to turn him into the world’s first businessman-celebrity—a showman-entrepreneur, although Lipton‘s appeal was far greater and had a different character in that, unlike the more modern variety of self-made-man, it was most strongly felt among the working classes and he was never criticized for materialistic excess.


Lipton’s quest for sailing’s greatest prize did not begin until he was 50, and  D’Antonio does not get around to describing it until near the middle of “A Full Cup.” That is as it should be. The book’s most compelling passages explore the origins of Lipton’s genius as a marketer, not just of products but also of himself. When his Irish-immigrant parents operated a small food store in a Glasgow slum, he told his mother that she should always offer up the eggs because they looked larger in her small hands. When he took on a local bully and kept fighting long after it became obvious to the other neighborhood boys that he could not win, he learned that perceptions are sometimes built on singular demonstrations of character, that it is possible to succeed without actually winning.


In 1866, when Lipton was just 17, he traveled to New York, where, after a few false starts, he found a job with one of the earliest department stores. There he saw how “a bit of polish and a smattering of pleasant conversation created what he called an ‘atmosphere’ that wasn’t found in a Glasgow shop.” His responsibilities grew quickly, but a few years later he returned to Glasgow, where he opened his own grocery store on his 23rd birthday.


Riding a pair of mighty waves — a rapidly emerging middle class and falling wholesale prices — he ultimately built almost 300 stores. Nonstop, frequently humorous promotion was his hallmark. He sometimes hired a dozen overweight men and an equal number of “cadaverous males” and had them march down opposite sides of busy shopping streets. The thin men carried signs saying, “Going to Lipton’s”; the signs on the more rounded men read: “Coming from Lipton’s.” He was a gregarious bon vivant, and his friends included King Edward and Thomas Edison and many of the best-known figures from both sides of the Atlantic.


We never learn for sure what drove Lipton’s ambition. He lied about his age for most of his life. Lipton named all of his businesses for himself, and he once undertook an effort to buy the right to put his name on the navigational buoys that marked Glasgow’s bustling harbor. Was this ego? Or was he was simply seeking to link his products to his own persona, which had become his most valuable creation?


Lipton’s participation in the America’s Cup, then the world’s biggest sporting event, may well have started as a part of his larger promotional efforts, a kind of transoceanic reputational brand extension. He had, after all, never before owned a boat, and he knew next to nothing about sailing. He funded his challenges. He was never onboard during races. But over the course of his 30-year quest, which continued until he died, it seems likely that it took on some emotional importance. Lipton had an extraordinary sense of timing. By the time he died, the Great Depression was deepening and giant yachts were becoming an unaffordable luxury.


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