L.O. Smith: Boisterous businessman and fearless genius

During the 1880s, L.O. Smith built the world’s largest liquor factory in his home town Karlshamn, located in the county of Blekinge. The opening of the factory was no doubt the peak of his career. The poor farmer’s boy from southern Sweden had created a site where 700 workers produced 100 million liters of vodka every year. Produced with a unique purifying method, it was shipped mainly to the rest of Sweden and Spain, but also to Italy, Estonia and Austria.

L.O. Smith was a brilliant businessman and negotiator who never forgot his humble roots. This sometimes brusque and boisterous man was determined to succeed. He worked his way up from shop assistant to port negotiator. Finally, he became the country’s leading liquor producer. He used his influence to create better conditions for workers by organizing workers’ groups, proposing a way to encourage savings, and campaigning for extended voting rights.

Smith was fluent in English, German and French. Early in his career, he managed to negotiate an extra vacation to learn languages. At a time when people rarely left the parish they were born in, the inquisitive Smith was an international globetrotter.

L.O. Smith’s nose for business and thoughtful strategies were second to none. He had a way of turning potential problems into opportunities. An example is when ships with rectified spirit (base alcohol) arrived while his stocks were full. Smith argued that he didn’t have room for more and haggled to lower the price – he claimed that this was the only way he could accept more stock. When it was time to sell the spirits, he placed it in an almost empty warehouse – giving the appearance of low stock, he could set the price high.

He was also completely fearless. When his first liquor factory at the Stockholm island Reimersholme was denied a license to sell its produce in the city center, he came up with a workaround: He opened his own shop on the island and transported people from the city to the island by boat. He also worked actively for social change, often in opposition to the upper class. In their eyes he was too radical: An upstart without class and style.

He invested the money he earned in new and bold projects, including a sugar factory and a steam kitchen (two of his less successful business ventures). Smith was no stranger to spending money, and bought both luxurious clothes and exclusive properties during his life. His apartment the Bolinderska Palace, at southern Blasieholmen in Stockholm, received a lot of attention. The newspapers reported that his wife Marie-Louise Collin had fresh roses delivered from Copenhagen every day.

The park surrounding Smith’s summer residence Carlshälls, located on the southern Stockholm island Långholmen, was known as the most beautiful in Stockholm. Around 10 people were employed to keep the park in perfect condition. When he visited his liquor factory, the parliament or business meetings, he would arrive in a cart drawn by white horses.

Smith died in poverty, however. The Spanish “vodka trade war”, which has been called a monumental failure of justice, cost him his entire fortune. Disagreements with Marie-Louise (his first wife) and their three children did not help either. At the end of his life, he had no contact with either of them.