The Man and the Manager

Eli Whitney Museum

Show Menu
Thumbnail of The Man and the Manager project

A talk given by Herb Pearce, A. C. Gilbert's former plant superintendent, at the Eli Whitney Museum in the Spring of 1992.

A. C. Gilbert built the largest toy company in the world, and he did it for the satisfaction of competition and to accomplish his goal more than he did it for money.

I want to start with my original relationship with A. C. Gilbert--how it started, how it progressed, and what effect it had on me. I have to admit that the original contact was not on a very high level. I was in the Spring Glen Grammar School and had a paper route that included A. C. Gilbert and his brother F. W., and there weren't too many houses in the Ridge Road area at that time. A. C. had an English country home there. Originally, he had about 25-30 acres and he had a golf course, five or six holes. So, in addition to delivering papers, I used to caddy for him in the evening when he came back from the factory.

In 1935, after I graduated from commercial high school, I applied for a job at the A. C. Gilbert Company and gave F. W. Gilbert and A. C. as a reference: F. W., who was Charlton's father (Charlton is A. C. Gilbert's nephew and the son of F. W. Gilbert. He was director of personnel at the A. C. Gilbert Co. in the 1940s.) and A. Co's brother, was the vice-president and general manager, and he instructed the personnel department to hire me, although he didn't know me too well.

My first job there was building models for displays in the stores during the Christmas holiday and that was the bascule bridge and things like that. The job paid 25 cents an hour and if you worked 40 hours, that's $10 a week. Now remember the country was still in a recession and gas was 10 cents a gallon, bread was 10 cents a loaf and you could find a place to get an 18 ounce schooner of beer for 10 cents. My kids would describe those days as "the olden days." Well, it was the olden days, but it was the golden days, too, because everything wasn't that bad.

During my time at the plant, after model making, I was assigned various jobs such as timekeeper, inspector, expediter, and production planner, always under the watchful eye of F. W., who was my mentor.

(Text reprinted from The S Gaugian 30:4 (July/August 1992), 38-40.)

In 1938, the Gilbert Company acquired the American Flyer Company of Chicago, moved it to New Haven, and built a new building to accommodate the manufacturing process. Guy Schumcher, who was the superintendent of American Flyer, came with them and resumed the same position with the Flyer division here in New Haven. Later he became the work manager of the entire company, and I became assistant work manager and later, superintendent in charge of all production departments. It was about 1941-42 that my career relationship started with A. c., along with Guy Schumacher, who was my direct boss. They became my mentors.

At this stage, I was 26 years old. It was a natural relationship because A. C. was intimately concerned with the manufacturing process and all the people associated with it, and this was my responsibility in those days. It was A. Co's practice to visit the night shift once a week, and it was seldom that he didn't find something he wanted to change, something he wanted to improve or to investigate, some grievance that one of the co-workers had talked to him about. Because of our informal management structure, A. C. most often came directly to me and we worked out the problem. That was all right with my boss because that was the type of management structure we had.

During the war, the company converted 90% of its facilities to defense production. From 1941 to 1945 the company earned the Army/ Navy Excellence Award four consecutive times. Although A. C. was proud of the role the company played in producing defense products, his real interest was in producing useful products that benefited society and educational products that stimulated young minds. Erector sets were used many times to demonstrate the concepts of construction projects and scientific projects as well. For instance, the New Haven Register carried a story recently about the first artificial heart, a pump design by a third-year student at Yale in 1949 made of parts from an Erector set that cost less than $25. That heart pump is now in the Smithsonian Institute; the Erector set has been used many times to conceptualize scientific projects.

After the war, the company resumed its role as a producer of educational toys, American Flier trains and electrical appliances. Although the company was known mostly for its reputation as a leading toy maker, the company had a prominent niche in the electrical appliance market. A lot of people don't know that, but we were a large producer of electric fans, coffee percolators, toasters, humidifiers, vibrators, electric cookers, and juice extractors. Before my time, the company even produced crystal set radios. And it was the first company in America to put them in a cabinet to hide those tubes and wires sticking out which previous manufacturers didn't address. The A. C. Gilbert Company was the sixth licensed broadcasting station in America. The big steel tower that you saw for many years was the broadcasting tower.

Al Jr. came into the business sometime in 1946 and assumed the presidency four or five years later. After that, A. C. participated less in the direction of the company and devoted most of his time to his activity at Paradise Farm. I would say the company reached its peak in the early '50s when they employed up to 2,500 people. About 2,000 of those people were in my department, which encompassed all production facilities. The rest were in sales, finance, engineering, quality control, purchasing, etc. I left the company at the beginning of 1957, when I was 40 years old, and decided to do something else with my life.

A. C. died in 1961. Soon after, the company was sold to the Wrather Corporation of California whose claim to fame was that they held the rights to the Lassie television program, owned a Disneyland motel and had an interest in certain oil-related companies. The Wrather Corporation took over in 1962, and it was a disaster because they didn't know what they were doing. They sent people in who didn't know anything about the toy industry, and they manufactured a lot of products that weren't up to standard. I think in the first year of operations, they lost about $3 million, something that had never happened before in the 50 year history of Gilbert.

Now I'd like to talk about the things that were unique about the company because this reflects the characteristics of greatness in A. c., its founder and driving force. These are the things that I remember about the company that separated it from most other companies in the '30s, '40s and '50s. First of all, there was no union. A. C. considered the union competition, and A. C. was a competitor. He didn't see any reason why people should join a union if he could offer them the same things that a union could offer and perhaps something better along with a better management style. So although the union harassed the company and tried desperately to gain a foothold, they never did gain a foothold in the company. I think later on after I left, some small unit perhaps unionized, but basically, and certainly during A. C.'s regime, no union could make headway at the A. C. Gilbert Company.

The other thing that distinguished the company was that we were self-sufficient. Most companies have manufacturing skills oflimited nature, and that's what they perform, but we had over 30 production departments with a broad range of skills. We had a big press department, screw machines that could turn out parts within one-tenth of one-thousandths of an inch and a big tool department that made dies and molds for various manufacturing processes. We had a huge die casting department, plastic molding, printing, plating, painting, box department, wire forming, welding, woodwork, and all those processes ultimately came together in the conveyer system where the various products were assembled and shipped to the customer.

We had a credit union, this was in 1935-36, where employees could borrow money at low interest rates and earn money in dividends through savings. We had a children's Christmas party, all-day company picnics and other entertainment from time to time. In the 1930s and early '40s, we had free medical advice and free legal advice, something that was unheard of in those days. I know women will like this: we had a pregnancy policy so that a woman could have up to 12 months leave of absence without interfering with their length of service record or their benefits. This was in 1940-that's over 50 years ago-and they are still talking about it today.

We had music, rest periods, coffee time, and we had annual coworkers' meetings (we didn't refer to them as employees) where we took them down into the recreation hall, maybe 400 at a time, six times, repeated throughout the day. A. C. would talk about the company's progress, what they hoped to do, new products, the sales efforts and projections. I would talk about what was happening in the factory, what changes and improvements we expected to make. That was something that we put a lot of effort into to keep those co-workers informed about the various aspects of the company, and we did that on an annual basis and gave them an opportunity to ask questions.

The other thing that we had were service dinners where everyone with a service record of 10 years or more was honored. It was an evening of fun, and to honor those people. I think that if I could recall the things that I got a kick out of the most it was to be on stage with A. C. at those co-worker meetings and to be his partner at those service dinners where I was the master of ceremonies. During co-worker meetings, A. C. would get us in there and we would have to rehearse it before we went on stage. When we were on stage, we didn't always follow the script. It was an experience to be on the same stage with A. C. because he was a performer and a show man, and I learned something from that experience.

We had a safety department which was not unusual, but when I think about the safety we engaged in back in those days and what they would require today, it would be a whole new world. Our safety department was very strict and protected the welfare of the co-workers. We had a charity fund in 1940 where we donated a certain percentage of our earnings, and we had a committee that made the distribution.

We had Blue Cross in 1938, where the company paid 50% of the benefits, and I think as a single person that I paid about $10 to $12 a month, and that's approximately $120 to $140 a year. Today that policy would cost about $3,500 to $4,000. This is between 25 and 30 times more, which tells you something about where our health-care cost is going.

We had a co-workers' handbook which was carefully done. It spelled out the philosophy of the company, all of the co-workers' rights and privileges, and how the grievance system worked. Incidentally, the grievance system worked because a co-worker could take his grievance to A. C. himself. That was the end of the line. We had a cafeteria and provided entertainment during the noon time. You could get a lunch in the cafeteria in those days for less than 50 cents and see a movie for free. We made a pledge and guaranteed to the co-workers at those annual meetings that they would receive the prevailing wages of the community. We had our people survey the surrounding companies to make sure that our rates were comparable for doing the same work at any other comparable place.

We had a suggestion system that rewarded people for ideas that they gave that would save the company money. In 1937, I got $500 for one of my suggestions. You might think that is just walking around money today, but in 1937, you could buy a new Plymouth for $600. We had advanced training courses that were held for people who wanted to advance themselves and seek further promotion.

Now, I would like to talk about A. C. the man. He was probably better known throughout America where he was considered a great man than he was known here in Connecticut. He was the policies and procedures of the Gilbert Company. A. C.'s philosophy was described in Life Magazine and Reader's Digest. In the New Yorker magazine, they had an eight-page profile on A. C. Gilbert and the philosophy that he had for dealing with people in his company.

A. C. was an M. D.; he was a graduate of Yale Medical School. He was a sportsman. He was a coach of the track team. He was a supreme athlete, and he was the Olympic champion in the pole vaulting event in 1908 in London. He wC;ls a showman and a performer. He was a farmer and an environmentalis·t. He was a breeder of hunting dogs and worldchampion German shepherds. He had a dairy farm complete with a pasteurization system that used to provide milk to the company cafeteria.

A. C. was an author who, in collaboration with a writer, wrote the book The Man Who Lives in Paradise. He was a business man. He built the largest toy company in the world, and he did it for the satisfaction of competition and to accomplish his goal more than he did it for money. In the New Yorker profile he's quoted saying, "I love to see the wheels go 'round, love to see people develop, it's not for profits alone. Sure, that's part of it because no one has any fun going busted, but I know this: just the object of making money has never meant anything to me." That was his true philosophy.

He also was a developer. He had 25-30 acres of land around his home that he eventually developed into fine housing. He developed property around his 600-acre Paradise Farm. He created Old Orchard Road in North Haven, which is still one of the finest residential areas of the whole town. He developed that in the '30s. He was an inventor with 180 patents in his name. He had great humility. A. C. had no pretense. He dressed casually and wore old flannel shirts, baggy pants and farm boots. He drove his own car; it was a Jeep.

Most of all, he was a great humanitarian. He was kind and generous. In the late '40s 1 lost the use of my left arm for seven or eight months. A. C. not only came to the hospital to see me, but furnished private nurses and the best medical care. He gave me stock in the company. I know if he did that for me, he probably did it for other people.

Now in conclusion, let me tell you what I learned from my experience with the A. C. Gilbert Company and how A. C. influenced my life. Many of the principles that he believed in, I have applied in my own business. I learned how to work because success only comes before work in the dictionary. I learned how to be resourceful because A. C. wasn't patient with people who couldn't get things done. I learned something about humility because A. C. was a humble person, and he wasn't impressed by anything less than human kindness and respect.

Finally, I spent 21 years of my life with the Gilbert Company, and I didn't regret a single minute. A. C. had a profound influence on my life, as he did on thousands of young people, as a stimulator of creative thinking, through his philosophy of life, which he conveyed to his constituency, and as a role model for those of us who came in contact with him.

The company that he founded legally expired in the late '60s, but the spirit of the company and the man who founded it will live on for a long time.

Back to Top