William J. Grede and Freedom's Responsibilities
Written By: John McManus | Posted: Saturday, October 22nd, 2011
History is replete with the deeds of successful individuals. Some rose to prominence as the builders of businesses while others served as the leaders of some noteworthy organizations. Still more made their marks as philanthropists, or served their nations in patriotic or religious endeavors, or spent their time and energy to make their own communities better places to live. There are very few of course who, in a busy lifetime, do all of this. William J. Grede was one of those very few.
Born in 1897 and raised in Milwaukee, Bill Grede never considered any other place home. The product of strict but loving parents (his stepmother, whom his dad, Henry, married after his first wife died, was to Bill "the only mother I ever knew"), Bill went to work at his father's carriage shop during summers when he was 14. He later worked at Uncle Art's tire store. The experiences he gained at both taught him two very important lessons: 1) always provide quality products and service; and 2) there is profit to be made in integrity.
During Bill's early years, the Milwaukee area was a hotbed of socialism. But the Grede family never got caught up in it. Bill learned many distinctly opposite views through reading the works of Horatio Alger and watching the way his father and uncle worked. He also benefitted mightily from a high-school economics teacher who "drilled" into his charges timeless principles Bill never forgot.
He spent only two years at the University of Wisconsin, where he profited greatly from reading an assigned work entitled The Responsibility of Freedom. Asked frequently where he developed his philosophy of freedom and his belief that he was required to maintain and promote it, he would always point to that book. During the summer break after his first year, Bill also learned a lot about marketing by selling pots and pans door to door and at church suppers, where he demonstrated the value of his products by cooking the meal using them.
In 1917, family friend Albert Wagner purchased a small foundry in Decatur, Illinois, and lured Bill to be his assistant at the then-generous salary of $150 a month. Bill learned a lot about the foundry business, but his patriotic instincts overcame his business pursuits. In September 1918, after several unsuccessful attempts to enlist in the military, Bill won acceptance for army officer training and went off to Georgia. He won his commission just as World War I ended and was promptly discharged. He had already married high-school sweetheart Margaret Weiss, and he parted company with the Decatur foundry and headed back to Milwaukee. Soon, with a little money he'd accumulated plus some help from willing investors, he purchased Liberty Foundry in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa. On August 13, 1920, at the ripe old age of 23, Bill Grede was the sole proprietor of a company with 40 employees. Liberty Foundry's fortunes improved markedly from that day forward.
Careful study and experimentation with workmen's output convinced Bill that the nine-and-a-half-hour workday and six-day work week weren't needed to maintain productivity. In phases, he shortened the day schedule to eight hours and then eliminated Saturdays. In 1924, Liberty bought group life insurance for employees. In 1926, Grede inaugurated paid vacations for workers. And in 1927, he added accident and health insurance for all. He later developed a pension plan for his employees. These were years when the term "fringe benefits" hadn't even been coined. Each of these innovations was unique in the manufacturing industry, but Grede accepted no accolades for what others termed his "humanitarian gestures." He said he was merely acting in self-interest knowing that he would retain his best employees, all would produce at high levels, and the company would earn a profit.
In no time, it seemed, Bill Grede became known as "the boy foundryman from the West." Adhering to his father's counsel that he "be honest, work hard, and smile," he and his company developed an excellent reputation in the industry. When other businesses were failing, Liberty Foundry was expanding.
In 1927, a Liberty customer told Bill of his need for a speciality product that he knew Liberty wasn't equipped to make. But he so admired the way Bill Grede did business that he suggested Bill purchase Spring City Foundry in nearby Waukesha where the product could be made. Bill liked the suggestion, bought the struggling foundry, satisfied his customer's needs, and rapidly improved his new acquisition's profitability and product quality. The Grede name became even better known in the industry.
He then persuaded brother Art to join him just prior to the 1929 depression. The nation's economic problems forced them to retrench slightly, but they not only survived, they added Milwaukee Steel Foundry to their holdings in 1932. In 1940, the three Grede-owned foundries were united as Grede Foundries Incorporated. Before long, three other foundries, one each in Michigan, Kansas, and Wisconsin, were added. From 40 employees in 1920, Grede Foundries was now employing 2,000.
A Foe of Compulsory Labor Unions
Bill Grede's belief that each person is an individual who should be treated like an individual formed the basis of his opposition to labor unions. He never turned over to a labor union, or to any third party, the right of an employee to bargain for himself. Union organizers repeatedly sought to get Grede employees to vote for a union, but they never did. Grede would tell anyone that unions aren't needed by employees of a company that knows and practices the American Way. In speeches or in answer to questions about his attitude, he'd always tell the story about the cows:
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