Kaiser helped to make America great in first place

SS John W. Brown, one of two surviving operational Liberty ships, was photographed in 2000. Henry J. Kaiser built nearly 1,500 ships for the Allies during World War II.

Between now and November, you will hear lots about “How to Make America Great Again!”

Much of our country’s greatness is because of our “Entrepreneurial Spirit.” It is our unique trait which makes us the envy of the world.

America has been blessed with industrious leaders who are optimistic, forward looking and passionate. They are tireless men and women who take calculated risks and pull themselves together after failure. They have the drive to get things done no matter what the circumstances.

Henry J. Kaiser, who dropped out of school at age 12, was one of our country’s leading entrepreneurs. His legacy remains with us today even though he died in 1967.

His story begins in 1894. Kaiser started working for local merchants to help support the family in Whitesboro, NY. He moved to Spokane in 1906 and found a job selling silverware at James McGowan’s hardware store. McGowan described Kaiser as “a go-getter with faith, enthusiasm and hard work. He was a great believer in giving his customers service over and above their expectations.”

Kaiser moved into road construction in 1914. He borrowed $25,000 to build a 2.5 mile road in northwest Washington. Kaiser, who often worked out of his car from sunrise to sunset, quickly earned the reputation for finishing jobs ahead of time, with high quality and on budget.

Along the way, Kaiser invented ways to construct roads faster and cheaper. For example, he worked with heavy equipment manufacturer, R.G. LeTourneau, to replace horse-drawn equipment with gas-powered machines.

Interestingly, when truck manufacturers refused to make dump trucks powered by diesel motors, Kaiser bought the trucks anyway and swapped out gasoline engines. It cut operating costs in half.

Kaiser’s interest in dam building spiked in the 1930s. He found partners, “The Six Companies,” and they won the bid to build the $54 million Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Kaiser was made chairman of the consortium in recognition of his unique ability to get people to work together. Hoover was completed two years and two months ahead of schedule.

“The Six Companies” went on to build major portions of Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, which also were completed more than a year earlier than planned.

Kaiser became famous during World War II for shipbuilding and delivered nearly 1,500 vessels in the war effort. The most notable were the “Liberty” and “Victory” cargo ships.

Kaiser perfected fast welding techniques which all but eliminated laborious riveting. The piece-by-piece way of putting ships together was scrapped and replaced by prefabricated sections. His shipyards were laid out like assembly lines with steel and parts flowing smoothly from rail flat cars to dry docks.

On Liberty ships alone, government records show that Kaiser built them in two-thirds the time and at 25 percent less cost than the average of all other shipyards.

After the war, Kaiser’s empire grew. He moved into steel, aluminum and concrete production, real estate and health care. In 1946, he teamed with auto executive Joseph Frazer to assemble Kaiser and Frazer cars. In 1956, they switched to making a commercial version of the World War II Jeep.

Kaiser established the foundation to provide affordable health care. It was a new idea where people would prepay for health services at Kaiser’s hospitals and clinics rather than go to higher cost fee-for-service providers.

On his 85th birthday, Kaiser told reporters: “Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for my hospitals. They’re the things that are filling the people’s greatest need—good health.”

As Kaiser illustrated, entrepreneurs are essential to America. They are embedded in our country’s DNA.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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