Business Lessons from History – Story of COLGATE

Business Lessons from History – Story of COLGATE

by Rick Williams Jr.

“In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.” – Proverbs 3:6

Colgate is a household name; and upon hearing that name, most people in America think immediately of toothpaste. But if Americans knew about the man behind that name, they might think immediately about Christ and the path Colgate and Christ walked together. Readers of this journal should aim for the same witness.

William Colgate drew his first breath on January 25th, 1783 in the parish of Hollingbourn, in the County of Kent, England. William’s father, Robert, was a farmer by trade and was known for a sharp intellect and strong political convictions. The elder Colgate’s outspoken support for the Colonies’ struggle for independence, both before and during the Revolutionary War, would eventually bring political persecution from British authorities. God intervened and the family was startled awake in the middle of the night by someone pounding on their front door. The Colgate’s had a friend in Prime Minister William Pitt and he had sent his personal messenger to warn William Colgate to take his family and flee England. If Colgate remained in England, the messenger warned, he would certainly face prison or even death. But what worldly authorities meant for evil, God would eventually transform into good.

The family boarded a ship in March, 1798 and sailed for America. They settled on a farm in Hartford Co., Maryland. William’s father soon formed a partnership with Ralph Maher to manufacture soap and candles. Young William helped the two men and caught on quickly. Despite their hard work, the partnership failed and Robert Colgate returned to farming. But William liked the business and was convinced he could become successful. So William struck out on his own, but within one year the business failed from lack of capital and William Colgate had to close his doors. Despite the two setbacks, Colgate would not give up – a good lesson for anyone who has a God-given dream.

God will still direct your paths, if you acknowledge Him and commit your business to Him in all your ways – even failure. A Christian friend who worked as a canal-boat captain advised Colgate,”Give your heart to Christ. Give God all that belongs to Him. Make an honest soap. Give a full pound… Someone will be the leading soap maker in New York. It may be you!”

As William studied the Bible, he was intrigued by the words of Jacob in Genesis 28: 20-22:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”

In 1804, Colgate was employed by another soap maker as an apprentice. Colgate’s observation was keen, and despite his age he was aware of Proverbs admonition to heed instruction, even if that instruction comes from those who fail (Proverbs 24:30-32). Colgate believed the company was being mismanaged and he was right. The company finally was forced to cease production in 1806, but Colgate’s reputation and ambition enabled him to make contacts with dealers in other cities and he was able to establish himself in the business. William Colgate and Company was successful from the very beginning and within six years the company had diversified, adding starch manufacturing to its product line. Soon, the company would also be producing hand soap and other toilet and shaving soap products.

While Colgate was deeply involved in getting his business established, he did not neglect to acknowledge his God and attend to his spiritual needs. Colgate attributed his success to his commitment to Scriptural principles. As Jacob had promised to give the first fruits of his labor to God, so Colgate made a similar promise. Ten percent of Colgate’s profits were faithfully given to God’s work. Colgate soon became one of the most prosperous businessmen in New York. God was directing his paths. Colgate’s business was not the only thing in his life that was growing and prospering. Colgate married Mary Gilbert in 1811 – a union that would eventually bear eleven children. His marriage to Mary was what some called, “a happy union with a partner of congenial spirit.”

The Colgates’ even acknowledged God when naming their children: they were fond of giving their children Biblical names. This reflected their Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives. The family attended church and read the family bible together. Colgate was active in various Christian civic efforts, including temperance efforts. He also gave large sums of money to various educational institutions, including what was then called Madison College, in Hamilton, New York. Due to his generosity, the school is known today as Colgate University. He was a great supporter of missions, choosing at one time to be the sole supporter of one particular foreign missionary. In 1816, Colgate was instrumental in organizing the American Bible Society and later, the American and Foreign Bible Society. He also served on the board of the American Tract Society. Colgate became known affectionately as “Deacon Colgate.”

As Colgate’s business endeavors continued to prosper and be blessed by God, he instructed his accountants to increase his giving – first to 20 percent and then to 30 percent. And as he continued to give, his company began to prosper all the more.

The soap king met the King of Kings on March the 25th 1857. His son succeeded him in business and the company continued its successful course, due to William Colgate’s solid Biblical foundations.

Today, Colgate-Palmolive is one of America’s oldest and most successful Fortune 500 companies. Its worldwide sales revenues exceed nine billion dollars annually and it offers its products in 221 countries and provinces around the globe. Its product lines include oral, personal, household and fabric care, as well as pet nutrition. Brands and products include such well-known names as Colgate, Palmolive, Speed-Stick, Fab, Murphy, Ajax, and Irish Spring. The success of Colgate-Palmolive is a testimony to what God can do with a young apprentice committed to following his dream and committed to acknowledging the God who fulfills dreams.

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