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Business: The Big Dreamer

4 minute read


AMID the political turmoil in the Belgian Congo last week, one U.S. businessman turned up with what he termed “a great victory for the Western world.” The man is Louis Edgar Detwiler, 62, a tough, steely-eyed international promoter who signed a 50-year contract with Premier Patrice Lumumba to act as adviser for the development of the new nation’s mineral, oil, gas and hydroelectric-power resources. Through the company he organized only a month ago, called Congo International Management Corp. (CIMCO), Detwiler hopes—if the Congo Parliament ratifies the deal—to mastermind projects to build airports, pipelines, highways and hospitals in the Congo and to train the Congolese to run them. Crowed Detwiler: “We have rescued the Congo.”

U.S. businessmen, bankers and Government officials with experience in Africa took a more skeptical view. Detwiler had urged on Ghana a development plan similar to his Congo contract, and was turned down. Said Ghana’s Minister of Information Kweku Boateng: “If he comes here again, we will kick him out.”

Detwiler has a reputation as a kind of international five percenter. He says he has negotiated oil concessions in the Middle East and arranged loans for foreign countries and big U.S. industrial firms. He usually comes in fast, paints such a glowing picture of the industrial future that he often wins a concession. Then he tries to line up capital and corporations to complete the project.

DETWILER was born in Altoona, Pa. of Pennsylvania-Dutch stock, served two years as a pilot in Europe during World War I before returning to study at Temple University and the Wharton School of Finance. He says that he made and lost his first $5,000,000 in the Florida real estate boom in the ‘205, made another $25 million through a group of utilities holding companies. When the market crashed, Detwiler lost all his money. During the 19305 and 19405, he spent his time running investment development and securities companies.

As a promoter, Detwiler’s dreams have no boundaries. In 1950 he hustled into newly oil-rich Edmonton, Alta. with a 4-ft. by 5-ft. shiny-brown briefcase, drew out a series of dazzling plans to redevelop the city’s downtown area in a $25 million project. The project failed to win the support of the necessary 66⅓% of voters in a referendum. He also urged U.S. and British church leaders to make Canterbury Cathedral a Protestant “Vatican” at a cost of $25 million, including hidden lighting that would give the effect of sunrise, sunset and moonlight. The flamboyant Red dean, Dr. Hewlett Johnson, said he “had dreamed of a project like this for 40 years,” but the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, called the idea “unacceptable and abhorrent.” Another dream, pending since 1958, is the construction of two 100,000-ton economy style transatlantic liners designed to carry 6,000 to 8,000 passengers at fares under $200, including meals.

THE venture that helped Detwiler land the new Congo contract was a concession he got in 1953 from the Liberian government to develop the Nimba iron-ore deposits in the rain forests. What happened then is as hazy as a rain forest. Detwiler says he was forced to give up control to Swedish interests but kept some of his stock. Another version is that the Liberian government pressured Detwiler out because he was not producing. Still, the Liberian experience led Detwiler to other African leaders. He met Lumumba’s private secretary recently. On July 11 he flew to the Congo from Brussels in a plane loaded with Belgian paratroopers. Detwiler says he has no idea how much money the Congo project will need. CIMCO has authorized 1,000,000 shares of $1-par-value stock but only $10,000 worth has been sold. CIMCO’s board members—engineers, bankers and lawyers—represent several millions in assets.

Actually, what Detwiler has is a hunting license to get U.S. firms to develop the Congo. Since it is a nonexclusive contract and other U.S. businessmen are also negotiating , with the Congo government, he must work fast. Now that he has the contract he must find financial backing. If Detwiler cannot produce—and there were unkind rumors in Leopoldville last week that Lumumba’s pro-Communist advisers agreed to the contract in hopes of discrediting all Western businessmen—then the consequences might be disastrous. “If we should lose the resources of the Congo, it would be a serious blow to the free world,” says Detwiler. He was counting on investors reacting to his dream as both an opportunity and an obligation. Certainly, the contract showed the willingness of the Congolese to reach westward for help instead of turning first to Russia.

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