While, on the surface, this may seem like a straightforward way to operate the business, it required a lot of motivating from the partners. Llew remembers well how Barney would storm into the office unannounced and, “in his loud, stentorian voice – raise hell.” The only person Barney Toole wouldn’t raise his voice with was Archer Toole. “He always talked quietly with Archer,” Llew recalls.
“George Eaton knew a lot more about insurance than Sidney,” Llew notes, but it was Robbins, as an administrator, who knew how to build up connections in the insurance industry and run an orderly office.
The office was not crowded but, because the desks were set up in rows, there was virtually no privacy. In the morning, Sidney Robbins would stroll the aisle looking over the shoulders of his employees in the insurance department. It wasn’t long before Llew developed the habit of arriving at least fifteen minutes earlier than the 9 a.m. required starting time and staying another fifteen minutes past the 5 p.m. quitting time just to stay one step ahead of Robbins.
Robbins, Llew remembers, was very particular over certain matters and reviewing overdue accounts was his favorite method of badgering the men. While the men didn’t like it, Robbins’ persistence paid off when it led to the discovery of a fraud scheme operated by one of the salesmen.
Suffering from the insistent nagging of a wife with expensive tastes, the salesman had been writing policies for fictitious clients. He would pay a few premiums and then report a claim. Through laxity in the insurance companies’ controls and a bank that seemed unconcerned about the strange deposits being made, the salesman was able to keep up with his wife’s demands until a slip-up caught Robbin’s attention.
After being rebuked by Sidney Robbins for slow collections, the salesman made payments simultaneously for several of his fictitious policyholders. Robbins, who scrutinized the books daily, immediately ‘smelled a rat’ and drove out to interview the policyholders who proved to be non-existent.
With the scheme uncovered, Barney Toole and George Peet made right the losses and worked out an arrangement with the salesman who continued on with the firm. “Nobody ever knew what they did about it,” says Llew.
The senior partners must have appreciated Sidney Robbins skills as an administrator when his observations proved as valuable as they did in this instance. However, the appreciation did not preclude Barney Toole from doing all he could to impress on Robbins and the others the importance of everybody working as a salesman and bringing in business; a belief that Barney Toole himself relentlessly followed.
In writing to George Peet about the lack of effort of the junior partners in seeking new business, he wrote:
“…they would have been swamped if left to their casual methods… Did any of them say ‘We must be a force in every line of activity in the City. In fact, we must be heard of in every direction’. I have seen no evidence. It would be a terrible tragedy if some of them had to go down occasionally to the Board of Trade, or attend meetings which might bring them into the business community or activity, after hours; and until we can get men representing us who are prepared to meet the men of the other firms in these general activities, we cannot expect to be regarded as a really active force in the community, as we once were.”
But, according to Llew Valentine, as demanding as Barney Toole was, “If he got to like you, his whole attitude changed.”
Llew remembers overhearing George and Barney discussing a piece of business in which he was involved and George saying that “Louey” was taking care of it. Barney bristled. “Who the hell is Louey?” he demanded. When George explained that he was referring to Mr. Valentine, Barney rumbled for a few minutes but, after that, Barney always referred to him as “Louey.”
The Depression, Salaries Reduced
As the thirties progressed, it became apparent that even with the senior partners pushing as hard as they could, the depression made it difficult to continue without reducing expenses.
“Our first object in these peculiar times should be to protect our permanent staff and leave no stone unturned to maintain fair salaries. Personally, I think that’s the way to show proper appreciation,” Barney wrote in 1932 to the directors. However, salary reductions were inevitable and not long afterwards George Peet called Llew Valentine into his office.
“I’ll never forget it,” Llew says today. “He had this big moustache and he talked in this deep voice very seriously;’ Valentine’, he said, ‘Sorry to tell you this – things are not very profitable these days. We have to reduce our expenses. We’re going to cut your salary by $10 per month.” In those times $10 per month was a lot, as Llew was only earning $130 per month. The salaries of everyone were reduced by up to 20 per cent. Sidney Robbins, ever the administrator, claimed more than 20 years later that the salary cuts were never made up.