The Demise of H.E. Harris

Those of us who started in philately over thirty years ago remember H.E. Harris. Harris was the largest stamp dealer in the mid-twentieth century, growing rapidly during the Great Depression with the Captain Tim radio show. Harris was a leading  promoter of philately with album publishing and approvals, so that by 1975, Harris had tens of thousands of customers and, it was argued, made more new collectors than the Post Office itself.

By 1975, Henry Harris was an old man and was ready to sell his business, and the story of the demise of Harris tells us a lot about American business in the 1970s and 1980s. Harris sold his business to General Mills, and as a young stamp dealer I had visions of General Mills promoting stamp collecting on the back of every box of Cheerios sold in America. But this was not to be. General Mills ran a late twentieth century venture capitalism division, and it was this unit that bought Harris. Their goal was simple: They stripped Harris of its assets, sold off the inventory, floated the publishing division, and closed down the approval business. Employment went from hundreds to zero. The employees lost out, stamp collectors lost out, everyone lost except General Mills which made far more money dismantling Harris than Harris ever made keeping his company in business and his employees and collectors happy. (The model that General Mills used was the venture capital model of the time and was the same model that was used to enrich venture capitalists at places like Bain Capital).

Now don’t get me wrong; I am a capitalist—all stamp dealers are. But the rewards that the purveyors of what they euphemistically call “creative destruction” get seem far out of proportion to the harm that they cause. I know this story well because the same team from General Mills that bought Harris made an offer for my company in 1981. But by then it was clear what the pattern was to be. We decided to stay as stamp dealers because we felt a commitment to our staff, our customers, and to our hobby, and because of our fear that after they dismantled our company we would have nothing left to do.

Share on:
Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top