Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background

Khalid Elhassan - December 8, 2021

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
The British 67th Regiment of Foot captures a Chinese fort during the Second Opium War. Wikimedia

12. In the Name of Opium and Expanded Business Opportunities, an Anglo-French Army Marched on Beijing

France, which also sought greater trade concessions and business opportunities from China, eagerly joined Britain in the Second Opium War. The disparity between the Chinese and Western forces was even greater this second time around. Moreover, the Chinese were in the midst of a huge peasant revolt, the Taiping Rebellion, whose leader claimed to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother. The combined British and French army had little trouble in seizing Canton in 1857, and as China’s military setbacks mounted, the Chinese government sued for peace.

When talks broke down, the invaders sailed to northern China, seized the Taku Forts near Tianjin, and advanced upon Beijing. That brought the Chinese back to the negotiating table. At some point in the midst of the fresh round of diplomacy, a British envoy insulted his Chinese counterpart and was arrested along with his party. Half of his entourage was tortured to death. In retaliation, the Anglo-French forces attacked and routed a Chinese army near Beijing, and forced the emperor to flee his capital.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Sack of the Summer Palace. L’Illustration

11. In the Name of Business – and the Right to Sell Drugs – an Anglo-French Army Committed a Great Act of Cultural Vandalism

After its victory outside Beijing, the Anglo-French army seized a vast imperial compound known as the Summer Palace. There, the soldiers plundered anything made of gold or silver, then indulged themselves in an orgy of destruction for the sheer fun of it. They crushed exquisite statues, smashed pricey objects of porcelain and jade, ripped precious paintings with their bayonets, and paraded in expensive and ornate silk robes from the imperial wardrobe for comic effect. Then they put the entire palace complex to the torch.

The destruction of the Summer Palace was one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the past few centuries. As one British officer described it: “When we first entered the gardens they reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales; we marched from them upon the 19th October, leaving them a dreary waste of ruined nothings“. Utterly defeated, the Chinese capitulated and signed a peace treaty in 1860 that granted all the invaders’ demands for business concessions. Said demands included the complete legalization of the opium trade within China’s borders.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Gunther Quandt. Bundesarchiv Bild

10. A Luxury Car Maker’s Nazi Ties

Bavarian Motor Works, or BMW, has always been known for its high-quality automobiles, and until 1945, for their aircraft engines. In 2020, it had around 130,000 employees worldwide, and global business revenue of nearly 100 billion euros. The company, which today produces luxury cars and motorcycles, is a multinational with plants in Germany, the US, UK, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Less known is that its major shareholders, the Quandt family, were close friends and admirers of Hitler and the Nazis. That became an issue after a 2007 TV documentary aired unpleasant revelations about the company’s Nazi-era activities.

An investigation had unearthed plenty of problematic information about BMW’s and the Quandt family’s Nazi past. In a nutshell, the family patriarch, Gunther Quandt, and his son Herbert were up to their necks in collaboration with the Nazi regime. To their credit, the current generation of Quandts, unlike most other companies with Nazi ties, eventually came clean and did not duck the issue or sugarcoat things. They grabbed the bull by the horn, commissioned a respected German historian to research the company’s past, and set him loose on BMW’s and the Quandt family’s archives and files.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Slave workers at a BMW plant in WWII. Sara’s Children

9. A Business Empire That Profited Greatly From the Third Reich

Research on BMW’s Nazi-era history led to a 1200-page report, which concluded that “[t]he Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis … The family patriarch was part of the regime“. Among other things, the Quandts profited from the Nazis’ “Aryanization Program”, which confiscated Jewish property and turned it over to Germans approved by the new regime. BMW’s owners took advantage of their friendship with Hitler and their excellent Nazi connections and took over dozens of businesses that were seized from Jews and handed over to the Quandts.

So instrumental was BMW and the Quandts to the Third Reich’s military that Hitler Named Gunther Quandt a Wehrwirtschaftsführer, or “Leader of the Defense Economy”. In WWII, at least 50,000 slave workers from concentration camps toiled in BMW and Quandt family enterprises to manufacture weapons and fulfill armaments contracts. Many of the slave laborers died from the inhumane work conditions. Some from avoidable accidents, some from neglect, some were starved, and others were executed for workplace infractions.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Howard Hughes. Greenlane

8. The Tycoon Who Abused His Business to Indulge in Personal Pettiness

Few people would be surprised to learn that Howard Hughes (1905 – 1976), the billionaire recluse, eccentric, and all-around weirdo, could be a jackass at times. When Hughes was still a child, his father invented a rotary bit to drill oil wells in previously inaccessible places and made the already financially comfortable family fabulously wealthy. Hughes thus grew up in the lap of luxury, and all doors were opened for him to maximize his – admittedly great – potential. He became a successful pilot, engineer, movie director, investor, and business tycoon.

People that successful often have a bit of jackass in them, and are reluctant to accept “no” as an answer from anybody. However, Hughes went to extremes of pettiness in order to unleash his inner jerk. For example, he once bought a major movie studio to which an ex-girlfriend was contracted, just so he could mess with and wreck her career. As seen below, his victim was Jane Greer (1924 – 2001), a film noir actress who made a splash in the 1940s with femme fatale roles in movies such as Out of the Past, Dick Tracy, and The Big Steal.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Jane Greer, center, models a Women’s Army Corps uniform in 1942. KHOU

7. The Tycoon and the Teenage Girl

Jane Greer caught Howard Hughes’ eye in 1942 when she was eighteen years old and he saw her in a magazine. Greer’s mother worked for the War Department, and she ensured that her daughter was one of three young women chosen to model uniforms for the new Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1942. When Greer appeared in the June 8th, 1942, issue of Life magazine, many across the country were smitten. Their numbers included Howard Hughes. He became infatuated with the teenage girl, sponsored her, and sent her to Hollywood to become an actress. The eccentric tycoon liked to collect people – especially beautiful women – like normal folk collect stamps. So he signed the eighteen-year-old model to a personal contract.

“Personal contract” was as creepy as it sounds: soon after she signed, Hughes told the teenager that he never wanted her to marry anyone. At first, that was not a problem for the inexperienced Greer, who initially liked Hughes. As she recalled years later: “I found him rather endearing, like a child. His idea was to go to the amusement park … He won a large collection of Kewpie dolls for me“. Trouble arose when Greer eventually began to take an interest in other men. That enraged Hughes, who reasoned that he had made her so she was his, and that he had every right to break her if she stopped being his.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Jane Greer. Pixels

6. Howard Hughes Was Livid When a Singer Stole a Girl He Thought Was His

Jane Greer was content with Howard Hughes and their trips to amusement parks – at least at first. Things went sideways, however, when Greer welcomed the attentions of other men who saw her as a woman and not a child, and wanted to do more with her than visit amusement parks. Hughes wasn’t the only one captivated by Greer’s 1942 magazine photo. Star Crooner Rudy Vallee was also smitten, and he tried unsuccessfully to get her address from Life magazine. When he eventually found it, things got complicated.

Greer liked her time with Hughes, but an eccentric business tycoon who treated her like a child with trips to amusement parks was no match for a star singer who romanced her like a woman. Rudy Vallee swept Greer off her feet, and after a whirlwind courtship, they got married in 1943. Hughes seethed with jealousy and warned Greer that unless she divorced Vallee, he would wreck her career. Whatever the legality of the “no marriage” clause in the personal contract that the young actress had signed, Hughes had meant it, and he felt betrayed. So he went from doting to destructive and set out to wreck Greer’s career.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in ‘Out of the Past’, 1947. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. A Business Mogul Who Bought a Movie Studio Just to Wreck the Career of His Actress Ex

Howard Hughes had brought Jane Greer to Hollywood, but when she showed an interest in other men, he kept her shelved with no screen tests or movie work. So she sued to get out of her personal contract to Hughes, bought it back, and joined RKO – one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Greer had a run of successful films with RKO – until Hughes bought the studio to wreck her career. He called Greer to his office and told her he would not use her anymore.

Since I was under exclusive contract to Howard at RKO, that meant I would not be able to work for anybody else, either. I told him directly that this meant that he was ruining my film career. He replied by saying, ‘Yes, that’s right’“. Greer managed a few roles, but only when Hughes could find nobody else. After six years of barely any work, she paid the final installment to buy out her contract. By then, however, Hughes’ pettiness and business abuse had cost Greer the best and most lucrative years of her career.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant. Imgur

4. A Business Whose Negligence Caused a Catastrophe

Like most days at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, little stood out about December 2nd, 1984, to differentiate it from other days. That night, however, the plant leaked roughly forty tons of a highly poisonous gas called methyl isocyanate (MIC), along with other toxic airborne substances. It was one of history’s worst industrial accidents. The plant was located in a densely-populated area and surrounded by shanty towns. Over 600,000 people suffered from exposure to the lethal cloud. Thousands perished, and thousands more suffered permanent disabilities or were otherwise seriously injured.

It came to be known as the Bhopal Disaster. What took the catastrophe from the realm of industrial accident to one of sheer corporate evil was the callousness exhibited by Union Carbide before, during, and after the event. As seen below, the plant had a history of poor safety practices and near misses. The alarm had been raised for years but was ignored. The business had even turned down a request from local management for protective measures that would have averted the leak because it deemed such measures to be too expensive.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
A labor union protest against Union Carbide in India. The Indian Express

3. A Disaster Waiting to Happen

In 1969, Union Carbide built a plant in Bhopal to produce carbaryl, a pesticide that is sold under the brand name Sevin, and for which methyl isocyanate (MIC) was a key component. MIC is a highly toxic irritant, and is extremely hazardous to humans. Other manufacturers eventually switched to other processes to produce carbaryl that did not require the use of the highly dangerous MIC. Not so Union Carbide, which made the business decision to stick with MIC at its Bhopal plant because it was cheaper.

Union Carbide also cut corners in the maintenance of the MIC storage tanks and pipes at the Bhopal plant in order to save money. There were numerous leaks over the years, in which dozens of workers were killed or injured. By early December 1984, the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. Pipes and valves were corroded, one of three MIC storage tanks was out of commission, most safety systems were out of order, and special vents to scrub poison gasses did not work.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Rajkumar Keswani. Hindi News

2. A Plucky Journalist Raised the Alarm for Years but Was Ignored

Indian journalist Rajkumar Keswani began to investigate the safety protocols and procedures at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant in 1981 after a friend died there in an industrial accident. Helped by whistle blowers, he examined that and earlier mishaps and discovered that things were even worse than they looked. There had numerous screw-ups in which only dumb luck averted catastrophe. In one incident, a gas leak forced thousands of nearby residents to flee their homes in terror. In an internal telex exchange, Union Carbide’s Indian manager sought better pipe coating from the parent company in America. In one of the more evil replies in corporate history, he was told that it would be too expensive.

After a nine-month investigation, Keswani published the first of a series of newspaper articles that ran from 1982 to 1984. In them, he detailed dismal safety standards at the plant and raised the alarm about a potential catastrophe. With headlines such as “Bhopal Sitting on the Brink of a Volcano“; “Save Please, Save this City“; and “If You Don’t Understand, You All Shall be Wiped Out“, Keswani’s articles left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, like a modern Cassandra, his warnings were ignored. Then, on the night of December 2nd, 1984, the catastrophe he had spent years warning about occurred.

Business Pioneers that Had Quite the Disturbing Background
Victims of the Bhopal Disaster and their relatives in 2006, demand the extradition of Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s CEO back in 1984. Wikimedia

1. A Business Decision to Skimp on Safety to Cut Costs Exposed 600,000 People to Poison Gas

The predictable catastrophe at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant began at around 11 PM on December 2nd, 1984. Employees noticed that pressure inside one of the MIC tanks had increased from the normal 2 psi to 10 psi. Half an hour later, the effects of gas leakage were detected. At 11:45, a leaking pipe was spotted. In the meantime, the pressure in the MIC tank continued to rise. By 12:40 AM, it had reached 55 psi and began to vent toxic gas into the atmosphere. Within two hours, over 40 tons of MIC had been released and were blown into Bhopal.

The methyl isocyanate stayed low to the ground, burned the eyes of victims, made them nauseous, and killed many. Corporate callousness and the business decision to skimp on safety resulted in about 600,000 people harmed by MIC. 8000 perished within two weeks, and another 8000 died later. About 40,000 suffered serious injuries, and 4000 were permanently disabled. In 1989, Union Carbide paid the equivalent of U$ 875 million in 2021 dollars to settle litigation. It was less than U$ 1500 per victim, or less than $15,000 for each of those seriously injured, permanently disabled, or killed.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Airships Net – DELAG: The World’s First Airline

Atlantic, The, December 2nd, 2014 – Bhopal: the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later

Beatles Bible – The Beatles Audition for Decca Records

Burr, Chandler – The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession (2004)

Business Insider Australia, December 13th, 2013 – This is the Safe That Killed Whiskey Distiller Jack Daniel

Cheat Sheet – Jimi Hendrix Got Turned Down by the Same Decca Producer Who Turned Down the Beatles

Cracked – 4 Business Pioneers Who Changed the World for the Worse

Encyclopedia Britannica – The Coca-Cola Company

Guardian, The, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer

Hanes, William Travis, and Sanello, Frank – Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another (2004)

History Collection – 11 Company Towns Founded by Corporations

Independent, The, February 12th, 2012 – The Man Who Rejected The Beatles

Los Angeles Times, August 28th, 2001 – Jane Greer, Star of Film Noir ‘Out of the Past’

Mazzeo, Tilar J. – The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (2010)

McDermott, John – Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight (1992)

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

New York Post, March 7th, 2016 – BMW Admits ‘Regret’ Over Using Nazi Slave Labor During WWII

New York Times, December 11th, 1984 – Indian Journalist Offered Warning

Platt, Stephen R. – Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age (2018)

Star Ledger, May 6th, 2012 – The Hindenburg 75 Years Later: Memories Time Cannot Erase

Vaughan, Hal – Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (2012)

Wikipedia – Bhopal Disaster