May 7, 2006
Burt Todd, 81, Entrepreneur Who Dreamed Big, Is Dead
By Margalit Fox
Burt Kerr Todd, an entrepreneur, adventurer and international deal maker whose quixotic dreams and outlandish schemes more than occasionally paid off, as when he introduced the postage stamp to the tiny kingdom of Bhutan or resold the gently used Rolls-Royces of down-at-the-heels maharajas at a handsome profit, died on April 28 at his home in Ligonier, Pa. He was 81.
The cause was lung cancer, his family said.
The son of a wealthy Pittsburgh steel, glass and banking family, Mr. Todd combined the larger-than-life appetites of an F. Scott Fitzgerald hero with the lust for adventure of a 19th-century explorer. His exact job defied description, though it entailed both the businessman's art of the deal and the confidence man's gift of the gab.
Officially, Mr. Todd was president of the Kerr-Hays Company, an importing and manufacturing concern, now based in Ligonier, that he founded in 1963. But even before that, and for many years afterward, his portfolio included advising heads of state — mostly of small countries in Asia and the Pacific — on attracting American investment. At one time or another, Mr. Todd counted among his friends the sultan of Brunei, the king of Bhutan and the premier of the island of Mauritius.
A dazzling raconteur, Mr. Todd never lacked for material. He flew airplanes and maintained an impressive collection of vintage cars. He hunted leopards and rhinoceroses and was once treed in Bhutan by a rampaging elephant. He knew everyone, could sell anybody anything and was for years the bane of Pittsburgh long-distance operators, who were obliged to patch him through to all manner of obscure places at all manner of ungodly hours.
Impulsive, expansive, incurably restless, Mr. Todd might bundle his family into their little jet on a moment's notice. His sense of direction was not the best, and they did not always wind up where they intended. It rarely mattered. Wherever Mr. Todd turned up, something exciting was bound to result: a marvelous story, a new friendship or perhaps a deal involving rum, seaweed or other interesting commodities.
"There was something like bat guano," his daughter Laura Todd Widing recalled in a telephone interview on Friday. "It's good for something."
Mr. Todd finessed his way into graduate school at Oxford despite having just a year of college; trekked hundreds of miles through Nepal and was the first American to visit Bhutan, the last of the forbidden kingdoms of the Himalayas.
He once tried to found a small kingdom himself, on a deserted coral reef in the South Pacific. Its entire infrastructure was to be built on postage stamps. His dream was dashed, he later said, after Tongan gunboats blew his island paradise to ruins.
Except for the gunboats, all of the above is true, Mr. Todd's daughter said.
Burt Kerr Todd was born in Pittsburgh on May 15, 1924, the son of Kirkland W. Todd and the former Kathryn Kerr. By his own admission an indifferent student, he attended the Choate School before enrolling at Williams College. After the United States entered World War II, he left to enlist in the Army Air Corps, where he became a radar instructor.
When the war ended, Mr. Todd decided he would attend Oxford. His academic record, or lack thereof, did not deter him. Oxford told him that enrolling was quite impossible: the only official who could authorize it was just then on his honeymoon in the remote Norwegian countryside. Mr. Todd flew to Norway, tracked down the official and promptly enrolled. At Oxford, his friends included a future leader of Fiji and the future queen of Bhutan, the first person from her country to study in the West.
Mr. Todd graduated in 1949 with a master's degree in law. Two years later, chafing in his family's glass business in Pittsburgh, he received a cable from the Bhutanese royal family inviting him to visit. There was no air service, and few roads. Entering Bhutan from India, Mr. Todd became one of the few Westerners ever to see the country. His account of his journey appears in the December 1952 issue of National Geographic.
In 1954, Mr. Todd married Frances Hays, known as Susie, and the couple honeymooned in Bhutan. Besides his wife and daughter Laura, both of Ligonier, Mr. Todd is survived by another daughter, Frances Todd Stewart, of Pittsburgh; a brother, Kirkland W. Todd Jr., of Nashville; and five grandchildren.
Retained as an adviser by the Bhutanese royal family, Mr. Todd was asked to help expand the country's economic base. He suggested stamps, and in October 1962, Bhutan issued its first regular postage stamps.
In other work, Mr. Todd helped Fiji to make rum and Singapore to market seaweed. In India, he persuaded maharajas in financial straits to part with their Rolls-Royces, which he resold to Western collectors. (One car, a convertible Phantom III, came with a pop-up silver chair to accommodate a footman.)
But it was for the Bhutanese stamps that Mr. Todd was best known. Serious philatelists dismissed them as curiosities, and indeed, under Mr. Todd's direction, the stamps grew curiouser and curiouser. Some were printed on silk, others on plastic.
Most famous were the "talking stamps," small rounds of grooved rubber that could be spun on a phonograph. One played the Bhutanese national anthem; another, a spoken-word stamp, had Mr. Todd delivering a very concise history of Bhutan.
Perhaps in tribute to his Pittsburgh roots, Mr. Todd also had Bhutanese stamps printed on steel. They had a distressing tendency to rust.
A life well lived. Remember to always do what you feel you must, and can. And feel as if you can do anything. Because you can.
Like sell Bhutan on the idea of talking stamps.