Leopold Schepp was born on October 17, 1841, in the lower-east-side of Manhattan- Elizabeth Street to be exact. His parents were poor German immigrants who had come from Bavaria in the 1830s. His mother, Fredericka Bauer Schepp, was a native of Otterberg (Rheinpfalz), while his father was a native of Hitzkirchen (Hessen).
Sadly, Leopold’s father died when he was four years old. In later years it was necessary for him to assist his mother in supporting the family. By the age of 10, Leopold exhibited a great entrepreneurial talent-his keen mind and good spirit developed very early on.
“I can recall the summer of 1851,” Leopold said in 1925 (one year before his death). “My mother gave me 18 cents so I bought a dozen palm leaf fans at 1 1/2 cents a piece. I resold them on the horsecars on Third Avenue at 5 cents apiece. They sold so fast that the third day I hired three other boys on commission and was soon making $15 a week!”
The sale of the fans went so well that Leopold borrowed money from Mr. Otis Booth, his friend as well as his Sunday school superintendent. The extra cash bought him a pushcart and some baskets. Then, with the help of his friends, he began selling matches, shoe polish, shoestrings, and pins-and later tea, spices, and coconuts (yes coconuts)- all of which turned out to be profitable.
Leopold was taught by his mother to be honest, diligent, and thrifty. He held her in high regard and loved her deeply. His nickname among the boys was Leap, not only because it was short for “Leopold” but also because it described his alert nature and his eagerness to dash in and tackle problems while standing up for the things he believed were fair and just.
After a while, realizing that the distributors were getting too big a cut of the profits, Leopold decided to become a distributor himself. He continued to employ other boys on commission, and at age 17, rented a lot on Avenue D near Elizabeth Street, where he and a friend erected a small frame building for storing merchandise, stabling a horse, and keeping a wagon from which they sold and delivered miscellaneous items to grocers.
In 1861 (at age 20) he established himself at 156 Reade Street and hired a clerk to take orders from the grocers. Seven years later he was operating a wholesale business at 180 Duane Street and had made between $200,000 and $300,000 importing and selling coffee, tea, and spices. Keep in mind that $250,000 in 1868 corresponds to $2,990,000 in 2000 dollars. He was at the height of his career, and despite his lack of education, was savvy enough to run his own hugely successful business.
Because the real money to be made in coconuts was from ground coconut meal (or shreds), he decided to go into that business. He bought a sailing vessel-a brigantine that he named “Fredericka Schepp” after his mother-and used it to import coconuts from Central America and the Caribbean. The coconut meal business became so attractive to him that in 1873 he stopped selling other items. As the business grew he bought two more sailing vessels to import coconuts and distribute the meal.
In 1886, he acquired a commercial building at Hudson and Duane Streets for the production of a dried or shredded coconut product, based on his formula, which he called “desiccated coconut.” Before long, Leopold had an alias: The Coconut King of New York City. Interestingly enough, he never had a business associate in any of his ventures.
The sales of desiccated coconut grew rapidly and, during the last ten years of Leopold’s life, brought in about $1,150,000 annually. Millions of coconuts were imported each year-not all by his own vessels-and converted at his plant into products sold throughout the world.
Leopold was also astute in investing his earnings. He was a member of the New York Stock Exchange from 1883 to 1901 and handled his own account. During the financial crisis of 1873, he lent money to needy firms with which he had business relations-and never charged more than six percent annual interest. He also bought the American Grape Sugar Works of Buffalo, NY, restructured it to make it more profitable, and sold it a few months later at a nice profit. He also was a large investor in the gold market during the Civil War and until 1872.
Throughout his career, Leopold helped his employees as well as others in need. He also liked animals, an attachment that started when one of his early customers put a tiny black-and-tan puppy in his basket and told him he could keep it. Leopold named the little dog “Carlo.” Later, it rode with him every day in the wagon and stood guard over the wagon’s contents. He was also fond of his horse, and in later years he owned several horses for riding.
Leopold married twice-first in 1870 to Carrie Angus, who died in 1871 after giving birth to Florence L. Schepp (his daughter who later ran both the coconut business and the Foundation). A second marriage (1876) was dissolved in 1882.
In the early 1920s, Leopold began wondering what to do with the fortune he had made. His wife Carrie was long dead, and their only child, Florence, had never married. He was generally recognized as one of the wealthiest people in New York City. He prepared a statement for New York newspapers asking for suggestions as to how he might spend his money on worthwhile causes. He had to hire twenty secretaries to answer all of the telephone calls that came in and to help read the 100,000 letters he received. None of the suggestions appealed to him, so he decided in 1925 to give $2,500,000 (over 24 million in 2000 dollars) to a newly-formed Schepp Foundation for Boys, the purpose of which, as stated in its charter, was “to promote the welfare of deserving boys between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, inclusive, without regard to sect or creed, and particularly to encourage such boys to obtain religious education, to aid their moral, mental, and physical development, and to encourage in them habits of manliness and thrift, etc.”
In 1926, shortly before his death, he gave another million dollars to aid deserving girls.
Today the Leopold Schepp Foundation continues to give education grants to women and men who demonstrate fine character and worthy aspirations. Undoubtedly, Leopold would be proud of the Foundation’s achievements were he alive today.