Over the last two-and-one-half years, we at the American Business History Center, in conjunction with the Archbridge Institute, have written and published twenty-one biographical articles on “American Originals.” These men and women, black and white, immigrants and native-born, lived lives of great accomplishment and contribution to society. Their lives demonstrate an ability to overcome setbacks, tragedies, and difficult origins. All were ”upwardly mobile” in the broadest sense of the phrase. In this article, we look back over the entire group, seeking lessons that might be useful to people today. Might you have what it takes to become, or “mobilize” yourself into, an “American Original?”
First, a quick look at their “demography” — who were these people whose lives we have studied?
They were a diverse group, including four women, two blacks, and four immigrants. They represented every religious belief, from the devout Protestant JC Penney and equally devout Catholic Conrad Hilton to Jews Adolph Ochs and Adolph Zukor to George Eastman, who did not support any given religion. They were born as early as 1801 and as late as 1917 (we have not covered any still-living people in the series). They worked in every industry imaginable — from hotels and casinos to movies, airlines, industrial design, ketchup, technology, newspapers, and retailing.
No two were alike: the life of each followed a unique pattern, described below as an “arc.” Some had many diverse interests and hobbies — there was nothing that did not interest George Eastman. Others like Jim Casey of UPS, CR Smith of American Airlines, and Conrad Hilton were so obsessed with their business that their family lives suffered or were non-existent.
As interesting as the ways in which they differed were their many similarities.
These people of great accomplishment were all hard workers, usually from a very early age, though some had no use for tasks that bored them. In different ways, each was a lifelong learner — some from books, most from mentors, many from experimentation, all from experience, but few from formal schooling, especially in the 19th century.
All were ambitious in the best and broadest sense of that word. They dreamed big, faced tremendous obstacles (often from childhood), took risks, and dealt with naysayers at every turn. Above all else, they believed in themselves. These traits can all be summed up in one word: purpose. Each of these fascinating people, no matter their background, industry, or hardships, found a purpose in life that made it worth living, that gave their lives meaning.
In every case, those purposes were to serve others, to make life better, usually including for their employees. These American Originals obsessed on customers, talking to them, listening to them.
Looking at all twenty-one, it appears that their lives of endless challenges, stress, and the continuous desire to become more, to grow bigger, did not take a toll on their lifespans. While Madam CJ Walker died the youngest, at age fifty-one from kidney disease, AG Gaston who started life in equally challenging conditions, lived to be one of the oldest, dying at one-hundred-and-three. Ten of the twenty-one lived at least 90 years, even though most were born in the 19th century, when lifespans were far shorter than today.
Let’s look at some of the specifics of these most interesting lives.
Madam Walker’s parents were slaves, her father carried on his owner’s books at a value of $700. Her mother died when she was five, her father when she was seven. Her first husband may have been lynched. As a young man, AG Gaston, also the descendant of slaves, worked in the iron mines for $3.10 a day, alongside prison labor. Mary Pickford’s father died when she was five years old, leaving the family destitute. George Eastman’s father died when he was eight. Only five of JC Penney’s 11 siblings survived to adulthood. Kirk Kerkorian was selling newspapers at the age of nine to help support his family. Most of the others were working by the time they were fourteen or fifteen, often much earlier.
No two of these people followed a formula in their personal and business evolution. Walt Disney was annoying his teachers with his creative drawings in the fourth grade — visions still with him throughout his career. Most of the others also developed lifelong interests very early in life. HJ Heinz was selling his garden produce at nine. Estee Lauder was mixing up facial creams when she was fourteen. At nineteen, Jim Casey and his friends borrowed $100 to create what was to become UPS. George Westinghouse got the first patent on his life-saving railroad air brake system when he was twenty-three. At the age of twenty-four, silent movie star and entrepreneur Mary Pickford was making $500,000 per year, the equivalent of $12 million today; yet her film career was over by the time she was forty.
On the other hand, Conrad Hilton, hoping to become a banker, ‘stumbled” into the hotel business at age thirty-one. Madam Walker did not start her hair-care business until she was almost forty. Robert Wood, who went on to create the largest retail chain in the world, did not take over Sears, Roebuck until he was forty-eight. After a life full of failed ideas and ventures, Gail Borden finally figured out success — with condensed milk — at the age of fifty-four.
Ambition, Vision, Purpose
No matter when in life they achieved it, all these individuals found a purpose in life: a reason for their work, for dealing with risks and stress, for selling employees and customers on their ideas and ideals. They were ultimately, in their own ways, dreamers. Yet they were also “action-oriented” to the extreme, often doing “whatever it takes” to make those dreams come true.
When the buyer at the most important department store in Paris refused to see her, Estee Lauder spilled some of her fragrance on the selling floor, prompting customers to ask for it and resulting in big orders from the store. Raymond Loewy spent month after month trying to convince manufacturers that better-looking, well-designed products would sell better, even during the Great Depression. Adolph Zukor, a father of the movie industry and the founder of Paramount studios, battled the Edison trust which controlled the production of early short films, pursuing his belief in longer films that told complete stories.
Why would Adolph Ochs, the publisher of a Chattanooga newspaper, believe he could turn the failing New York Times into a success in 1896? in 1892, George Eastman tried 469 different ways to fix a problem with his dry-plate photographic products before figuring out the solution. During World War II, Henry Kaiser believed he could build ships better and faster than anyone else, despite having no experience in shipbuilding. In 1942, one of his shipyards built a 441-foot Liberty ship in a record four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-six minutes.
When UPS achieved forty-eight-state coverage in 1975, eighty-eight-year-old founder Jim Casey could only say to his associates, “But you know, we are only serving 5 percent of the world’s population!” He wanted UPS to cover the earth.
If these people had listened to everyone around them, or “the experts,” most would never have accomplished their dreams. When George Eastman quit his bank job to focus on photography, a more senior businessman said, “George is a damn fool to give up a wonderful position for a will o’ the wisp.”
When Olive Ann Beech’s husband Walter, the head of airplane-maker Beechcraft, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1950, the men in the organization were convinced a woman could not lead a company in the male-dominated industry. Yet if one invested in Beech Aircraft when Olive Ann first became CEO and cashed out when she sold the company in 1980, they’d have an average annual return of 18 percent over twenty-nine years: $10,000 invested returned $1.23 million — excluding dividends. $10,000 invested in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index over the same period would have returned just $159,400.
Overcoming odds and obstacles required commitment, demanded passion. Throughout her long life, Estee Lauder was obsessed with showing people how to improve their skin. She would run into strangers in elevators, on the streets — even a Salvation Army lady — and say, “I could make your skin look so much better” as she reached for her ever-present supply of creams.
While many of our biographies reflect troubled childhoods with tragic loss, life was never easy for most of these people. They knew failure intimately. JC Penney was widowed twice and lost his fortune in the Florida real estate bust in the 1920s, yet continued working into his nineties. By 1929, fifty-six-year-old Adolph Zukor had built Paramount into the most powerful entertainment company on earth, one biographer saying, “What with his native constitution, his moderation in eating and drinking and his systematic exercise, he may have twenty years of work still in him. But the rest will be an easy pull up a gentle slope. Struggle is over for him — and perhaps his creation.” That writer was wrong on both counts. Within five years, the Great Depression caused the bankruptcy of Paramount and Zukor lost control. Yet he stayed employed at his creation under the direction of others far longer than twenty years, continuing to review box office receipts into his nineties and living to one-hundred-and-three.
Life for these men and women was an adventure. Henry J. Kaiser said that “problems are just opportunities in work clothes.” At the age of eighty-four, he told a younger visitor, “My, aren’t you lucky — you’ve got so many problems!”
Their dreams and achievements varied in size and scope. For HJ Heinz, a better way of making ketchup mattered, as did the smallest improvement in one of George Westinghouse’s hundreds of inventions. At the other extreme, Walt Disney dreamed of an amusement park which was clean enough to make his family comfortable. Conrad Hilton lusted after the great hotels of Chicago and New York years before he had the financial resources to buy them. Henry Kaiser loved massive projects, playing a key role in the construction of Hoover Dam and later leading the development of Hawaii as a resort destination. These were bold visions, beyond the wildest fantasies of most businesspeople.
In pursuing their dreams, they were always innovative and imaginative. Walt Disney created new systems for making animated movies. George Eastman became an expert on fireproofing factories because his employees worked with flammable film. HJ Heinz put up the first big lighted billboard in New York’s Times Square, leading the way for other advertisers.
Railroad empire builder James J. Hill, as part of the process for developing the northwestern United States, drove improvements in agriculture and crop yields as well as continually making improvements in train power, from wood to coal. Hill’s pursuit of better ways of doing things allowed him to build the highly profitable Great Northern Railroad from St. Paul to Seattle without government land grants, while the competing lines built with government largesse went bankrupt.
George Westinghouse took a chance on Nikola Tesla’s ideas about alternating current (AC), battling and ultimately defeating Thomas Edison and that great inventor’s commitment to direct current (DC).
While building his company, American Airlines, CR Smith convinced airplane maker Donald Douglas to take a risk on the plane that became the DC-3, the most successful passenger transport plane of all time. Madam Walker developed a franchised selling system which increased the incomes of thousands of black women across America. Under Robert Wood, Sears demanded that its suppliers make better products at lower costs, and used its own expertise and laboratories to help them do it.
When Adolph Ochs took over the second-rate New York Times in 1896, he vowed to make it an honest, objective, and comprehensive reporter of the news rather than a partisan scandal sheet like its competitors. Nobody else believed such a radical idea could work. Kirk Kerkorian was deemed equally “crazy” when he decided to build his first Las Vegas casino, the biggest one ever built in that city up until that time (Kerkorian went on to break several size records, especially with his MGM Grand).
No word fits these people better than “visionary.” Yet they were not born with visions nor were their goals handed to them by their parents or teachers. They saw opportunities where others saw none. They envisioned a better world, then made it real.
One of the most impressive aspects of these individuals was their propensity to share, their generosity, both inside their companies and beyond.
As he built his retail chain, JC Penney gave each manager a one-third ownership interest in their store. He was known as the man with a thousand partners. In the 1940s, his Seattle store manager made an annual profit share of $125,000, equivalent to $1.3 million today. Competitor Sears, Roebuck under Robert Wood and his predecessor Julius Rosenwald led the way in giving huge blocks of stock to employees, including hourly workers. By the 1970s, employees owned one-quarter of Sears. As long as he lived, Jim Casey kept UPS an employee-owned company: only after his death did it become a public company that anyone could buy shares in. Even today, over 70% of the company’s voting stock is owned by employees and descendants of the founders. The company also offers some of the best benefits and highest pay in American industry, a tradition established by Casey.
Pittsburghers Westinghouse and Heinz were both leaders in taking care of their workers, adding many benefits, better pay, and shorter working hours. In a 1987 move not loved by his many relatives, AG Gaston sold his insurance company — probably worth about $35 million — to 350 of his black employees for $3.5 million, giving up 90 percent of its value.
In early 2000, at the age of eighty-two, Kirk Kerkorian bought out his younger competitor and old friend Steve Wynn’s Mirage resorts for $4.4 billion. The deal included the Mirage, Bellagio, and Treasure Island casino hotels, some of the most prestigious on the Strip. When Kirk’s lawyers insisted that he make Wynn sign a standard five-year non-competition agreement, Kirk refused to do it. He liked Steve “in the game.” Wynn took his $500 million personal stake and immediately began building a new casino.
Finding healthcare inadequate for his workers, Henry Kaiser partnered with Dr. Sidney Garfield to create a system of hospitals and affordable services to take care of them. This was the nation’s first big Health Maintenance Organization (HMO). Established doctors and the American Medical Association fought this development at every turn, as it threatened lucrative private practices. Today Kaiser’s venture is called Kaiser Permanente, an $80 billion national organization.
Madam Walker spent as much time speaking and inspiring black businesspeople, especially women, as she did selling her hair-care products. Robert Wood had Sears donate thousands of animals to poor farmers to encourage and teach animal husbandry. UPS’ Jim Casey and his siblings used their UPS stock to set up the Annie E. Casey Foundation to honor their mother. Focused on children with tremendous challenges — such as those who have been in and out of multiple foster homes — today this foundation has $2.5 billion in assets, and hands out well over $100 million per year. In 1966, this foundation created a separate entity, the Casey Family Programs, to also help children. That organization today has assets of over $2.2 billion and spends about $130 million per year helping kids.
Few exceeded the generosity of George Eastman. His biggest innovation for his workers was the “wage dividend,” begun in 1912. Each spring, every employee, at every level, received a bonus check of 2 percent of their wages for the past five years, or about five weeks’ pay. In 1989, the payout to 85,000 employees was $239 million.
Eastman, like most of the others, was also an impressive philanthropist. But he was also a bit of a prankster. In perhaps his most audacious move, in 1913 he financed an entire new campus for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from which he had hired some of his best chemists. He asked that his $3 million gift remain anonymous for as long as possible, so the university announced that a “Mr. Smith” had funded the new campus. Newspapers raged with rumors as to who Mr. Smith might be. No one suspected Eastman, who was not yet known nationally as a philanthropist. At the same time, Eastman gave the university $300,000 for one building, and let them publicize his name. When the buildings opened in 1916, events were held around the United States to celebrate. As a $300,000 donor, Eastman attended the Rochester gathering, where he joined others in praising the unknown Mr. Smith. With later gifts of Kodak stock, Eastman’s role became public knowledge. His gifts to MIT eventually totaled $20 million. Pursuing his many interests, Eastman also created the Eastman Theater in Rochester, the top-ranked Eastman School of Music, and backed many other local civic projects.
The Ultimate Lesson
As mentioned, so far we have only written up the stories of American Originals who are no longer with us. Time has passed and it is perhaps easier to evaluate their lives and contributions than it is to judge those still playing on the field of life. Yet our world is full of living American Originals; new ones are born every day. There are few better ways to inspire the imagination, to see how inventive and courageous minds work, than to study the lives of these people on the detailed basis represented in each life story that we have published.
What we can say from our studies is that it does not matter where you come from, how you start out, even how soon you start. If you find a purpose in life, if you have a passion for anything — from making ketchup to building dams — you can change the world. And change your own life and that of those around you. After you have left this earth, will people say that you left it better than you found it? Will you become an American Original?
Explore all the American Originals at https://americanbusinesshistory.org/articles/
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