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Charles W. Nash: Automobile innovator, benevolent tyrant

by Patrik Vander Velden
Staff Writer
He gave $400,000 to help build the Kenosha Youth Foundation. He also once callously ordered stunned employees back to work minutes after a fellow worker lost three fingers in an assembly line accident.

Charles W. Nash was a paradox, benevolent patriarch and dictator. He was a product of laissez-faire capitalism and a believer of his own rags-to-riches saga. For two decades, from 1916 to 1936, he headed Nash Motors, building it into one of the America's major automakers and Kenosha's leading industry.

His 19th century values of rugged individualism and Darwinian capitalism made Nash a multi-millionaire by the mid-1930s. He gave much to the community, not the least of which was thousands of blue-collar jobs.

But in the end, 20th century forces caught up with him and made him a bitter man who rarely returned to the city he had, years earlier, chosen for his industrial base and home.

Charles Nash was born Jan. 28, 1864, in DeKalb, Ill. When he was 6, his parents separated and he found himself bound out to a Michigan farmer.

At 12, he ran away, but soon was working as a farmhand, but this time for a small monthly wage. Within a few years, he had saved enough to buy 80 sheep. Selling their wool, he bought books and taught himself to read and write. He also learned a bit of carpentry.

At 18, he sold his sheep, bought a half share in a hay cutting machine and made his living traveling from farm to farm in rural Michigan.

In 1884 he met Jessie Halleck, married her and bought a place outside Flint, Mich. Nash began farming, doing a bit of carpentry on the side.

Six years later, tired of farming, he went to work in the city, stuffing seat cushions for $1 a day at a carriage factory. Proving he was capable of operating the plant more efficiently, he quickly rose to supervisor, then general manager and vice president.

In 1897, at a New York trade show, he drove his first automobile. Soon he joined William Durant and David D. Buick in forming the Buick Motor Co.

By 1908, Nash was Buick's president and general manager. There he developed his business philosophy: Avoid debt, resist hasty expansion, go slowly and carefully. And most of all, be the boss.

Two years later, he was hired to straighten out General Motors, then struggling to avoid bankruptcy. He succeeded by channeling nearly all of GM's earnings into paying off old debts and buying new equipment.

He declined to pay dividends, though, causing stockholder dissatisfacton. In 1915, Nash was squeezed out of GM. Vowing never to work again for somebody else, he began looking for another troubled auto firm he could buy and resurrect. When a deal to buy Packard fell through, he turned to Jeffery in Kenosha.

One-time bicycle-maker Thomas B. Jeffery had been making autos and trucks under the Rambler and Jeffery names since 1901. The Kenosha firm had been moderately successful, but since the death of its founder had fallen on hard times. Several years later, in 1916, the company was in deep trouble.

For about $5 million, the 52-year-old Nash bought the Kenosha company and incorporated it as the Nash Motor Co. in July 1916.

Nash intended, plain and simple, to own, manage and control all phases of the business, from production to sales. His plan was to build a reliable, simple car for the average man.

As boss, he set an example as a hard worker and expected his employees to follow suit. From 1916 to 1925 he never took a vacation.

He brought in top notch auto men like Walter H. Alford and C.B. Warren, designed a new car and built up a network of dealers. Working 16-hour days, Nash turned the company around.

After World War I, he correctly predicted a postwar boom would drive all but a few well-managed and efficient carmakers from the field. His strategy was simple: make a solid motor car with no radical design changes.

His austere reputation was reflected even in his office, with its simple desk and chairs. There was, however, a red light above his desk which flashed whenever the assembly line stopped. That would send him rushing to see what was the problem.

That light symbolized the most important elements of his managerial style: dedication to production efficiency and obsession with control.

Although his employees felt otherwise, he insisted on seeing himself as just "one of the boys." In fact, his foremen lived in terror of "The Chief," as he loved to be called, showing up at their line section to observe.

A pennypincher, Nash refused to stockpile, fearing a sudden car market fluctuation might leave him with a large inventory of steel and other raw materials.

He also avoided an inventory of unsold cars. No auto was built without a firm order.

Although Nash was reluctant to borrow, he pioneered credit buying of cars. Most Americans couldn't pay cash for a new automobile. And dealers couldn't afford to carry them on credit. So Nash offered to finance purchases.

To these new middle class buyers, Nash sold medium-priced, moderately sized vehicles, leaving the luxury market to Buick and the low end to Ford.

His tightfisted management led to soaring profits. Industry writers hailed Nash as an "example of the self-made man, the rugged individualist rising from rags to riches...."

Not surprisingly, the self reliant Nash was completely unsympathetic to the rise of organized labor in the 1930s.

Nash said his low wages -- lowest in the industry -- and unsafe working conditions were part of turning a profit, and without profits there would be no jobs.

Accidents were a risk workers took in exchange for their wages. If they were unhappy, they could quit and find other jobs.

He once rushed to the assembly floor to find the line stopped and three severed fingers laying next to a machine. A foreman explained that the rest of the workers were upset about the accident.

"Brush them off and keep going," Nash ordered and turned the assembly line back on.

During the Depression, Nash laid off workers and rode out the economic storm, putting most of his $40 million into government bonds.

But a small portion of that money went to build what became known as the KYF, a fitting monument across the park from the library which had been left by the city's first philanthropist, Zalmon Simmons.

Despite his dictatorial approach, he considered himself a benevolent patriarch who developed a rather extensive recreation program and personally handed out $10 Christmas Eve bonuses to his 4,500 employees.

He prided himself on supposedly knowing each employee by name. In fact, though, when he toured the plant he needed prompting by his foremen.

Charles Nash was a member of the Elks and golfed at the Kenosha Country Club. He never joined a church and held no political office, though he was a lifelong Republican.

He vehemently opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies to end the Depression by curbing the power of capitalists such as himself.

Nash was not about to share the power he had struggled for since he first left the farm. He couldn't understand why workers didn't trust him when, after all, he was just "one of the boys," enjoyed physical labor and had worked his way to the top without a union.

"Before I'll recognize a union," he vowed in the early '30s, "I'll close the plant and throw the key in Lake Michigan."

Eventually, of course, he did recognize a union. Given the changing times, he could do nothing else. Feeling he had been betrayed by his workers, he retreated to his California home in Beverly Hills. Summers he spent in northern Wisconsin. No longer would he personally pass out the Christmas bonuses.

He turned over control to a younger man he saw as a kindred spirit, George Mason of Kelvinator Corp. However, Nash had to merge his auto firm and the refrigerator company to get him.

At 72, with a personal fortune estimated at more than $100 million, Nash was honored in a citywide jubilee in August 1936. There was a genuine outpouring of goodwill and respect for the man who had made Kenosha an automaking town and put it on the map.

Twelve years later, June 6, 1948, the 84-year-old automaking pioneer died at his Beverly Hills home.

Mary D. Bradford
Florence Buck
Floyd Carlson
Horace Johnson
Joseph Lindl
George Molinaro
Charles Nash
Dr. Nelson Pennoyer
Joseph Quarles
Zalmon G. Simmons
Beatrice Ives Welles
Oscar Zerk

Kenoshans who found fame elsewhere

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