EDITOR'S NOTE: For 125 years, General Electric has been led by some of the brightest minds in science and business. But former board chairman and president Owen D. Young was most highly regarded for his work as a diplomat. In week 11 of our series on GE's 125th, we look back on Young's legacy.
In 1929, Owen D. Young was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year, and it wasn't because he was Chairman of the Board of the General Electric Co.
Unlike other leaders in the history of the company, Young's life and career isn't defined simply by his GE resume. Instead, it was his work as a diplomat that earned him the honor from Time, two years after Charles Lindbergh was the first recipient of the award in 1927, and a year before Mahatma Ghandi gained that distinction in 1930. Also separating Young from the 12 other men who have been at the helm of GE is his strong connection to the region. He is the only CEO, president or chairman who was born in upstate New York, having grown up and spent much of his life in the small hamlet of Van Hornesville in the Herkimer County town of Stark.
"He was a very warm person and was always interested in what people were doing," said Grace Faith, Young's granddaughter and a Van Hornesville native now living in New York's Southern Tier. "I was one of 11 cousins, and he was always interested in what we had to say and what we were all doing. He would always open his home to all of us, and I have personal letters that he wrote to me, like he did all his grandchildren. I think that says something about who he was."
Young's ability to connect with people of all types put him on the worldwide stage in 1924 and again in 1929, both times as part of an international committee dealing with German reparations following World War I. On the second occasion he was named chairman of the committee, and the program that came out of the conference was called the Young Plan. During this same time period, Young, who had joined GE in 1913 as its chief counsel, had also created the Radio Corporation of America in 1919 as a subsidiary of GE, and was named GE's president and chairman of the board in 1922.
"He was a national statesmen who created RCA and really helped GE and the nation through the Great Depression," said Chris Hunter, senior archivist at MiSci in Schenectady. "There was talk of him running for the presidency. He was a very important individual who would never forget his hometown."
And in Van Hornesville, the town of Stark and Herkimer County, they haven't forgotten him.
"To come from such a small hometown and become such a world figure is an amazing story," said Sue Perkins, director of the Herkimer County Historical Society, who just last week led a successful cemetery tour in Van Hornesville, where one of the more popular stops was Young's gravesite. "He was a lawyer, an industrialist, a businessman and a diplomat. When I was doing all the research for the cemetery tour, I went to see where he was buried, and I was thinking it would be something large and elaborate. It wasn't. It's small and very unassuming."
A native of Van Hornesville in Herkimer County, Owen D. Young is the only General Electric chairman of the board or president who was born in upstate New York. This photo was taken circa 1930. (miSci)
As for running for president, town of Stark Historian Ronald Smith says Young never seriously considered it.
"I guess he might have thought about it a little, but he didn't want to get too involved in politics," said Smith, who grew up on the farm across the road from Young's. "He'd rather try to do things his own way. He was a very good man, and a very smart man. He was always helping people."
As a young boy, Smith, who is 79, remembers Young going out of his way to be a friendly neighbor.
"He was always coming over to my father and asking him how the family was doing," said Smith. "He loved people and the people loved him."
Historians have referred to Young as an advisor for five presidents (Wilson, Hoover, Harding, Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt), and he was particularly close to FDR, bringing the then-governor of New York to Van Hornesville to speak at the first graduation ceremony of the Van Hornesville School District in 1931. Young had been the individual most responsible for the school consolidation project in that area, and when he died in 1962 the school was renamed in his honor.
"He was always interested in people who lived in the valley here, and he usually kept an office right in the village," said Smith. "If you had a problem, you could ask him and he would always try to help. He was that kind of guy. He was also always interested in dairy farming, although he didn't really do that much farming work himself, and would hire three to five men to do all the haying. But if a farmer or somebody had a problem, he had the knowledge and the desire to make arrangements for them and make sure they got some help."
Born on October 27, 1874, Young went to St. Lawrence University at the age of 16, his parents paying for his education by mortgaging the farm. After graduating from St. Lawrence in 1894, he got his law degree from Boston University and joined a law firm in that city where he was noticed by Charles Coffin, the president of GE from its founding in 1892 to 1912. Coffin remained on as chairman until 1922, when Young took over. While Young remained chairman until 1945, his term as president ended within the first year with Gerard Swope taking over. An electrical engineer by trade, Swope's time as president covered just about the same time span as Young's as chairman. A native of St. Louis, Swope, according to GE historian George Wise, was another very civic-minded GE leader.
"Swope was Young's partner; 'Mr. Inside' to Young's 'Mr. Outside,' and he was at least as important and interesting as Young," said Wise, a GE retiree who earlier this year produced an on-line book called "Edison's Decision," available at the Schenectady County Historical Society's web site. "This is due to his major influence on national policies ranging from labor relations to social security. His 'Swope' Plan was a precursor to the first version of the New Deal, the National Recovery Act. Swope represented the view that a corporation should serve the balanced best interests of its shareholders, employees and customers, as opposed to the later view that a corporation's only responsibility was to maximize shareholder value."
While Young, as chairman of the board, oversaw Swope's efforts as president, many of GE's leaders in its 125-year history held both positions. They also used different paths to reach the top. Young did it as a lawyer and Swope as an engineer, although his scientific contributions to the company don't nearly match his work in the financial and managerial realms. Most of the others, with the exception of Jack Welch, who had a Ph.D in chemical engineering, were either business or financial wonks. E.W. Rice, who succeeded Coffin and also had a strong connection to Schenectady having lived on Lenox Road for years, didn't have a Ph.D or even a college education. He was, however, a brilliant scientist who became a very capable manager. And as for Coffin, he started out as a shoe salesman.
Jeff Immelt, Welch's successor, and John Flannery, GE's new CEO, both have business backgrounds, Immelt earning his MBA from Harvard and Flannery from Wharton.
One president who fails to get a mention on the company's web site, ge.com, is Robert Paxton. Paxton was president in 1959 when Ralph Cordiner was chairman and CEO during the price-fixing scandal. GE admitted to some guilt and paid a heavy fine ($7,470,000) in 1962, but both Paxton and Cordiner were cleared of any legal wrongdoing and not indicted. While Cordiner retired in 1963, Paxton, much more complicit in the matter according to some historians, was immediately forced to resign and subsequently written out of the official line of succession.
General Electric executives over the years
- Charles Coffin: Born Dec. 31, 1844 in Fairfield, Maine. Was GE president from its inception in 1892 through 1912, and chairman of the board from 1913-1922. Dies July 14, 1926.
- Edwin W. Rice: Born May 6, 1862 in Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Was GE president from 1913-1922. Dies Nov. 25, 1935.
- Owen D. Young: Born Oct. 27, 1874 in Van Hornesville, New York. Was GE chairman of the board from 1922-1939 and 1942-45. Also served as president of the company in 1922. Dies July 11, 1962.
- Gerard Swope: Born Dec. 1, 1872 in St. Louis. Was GE president from 1922-1940 and from 1942-45. Dies Nov. 20, 1957.
- Charles Wilson: Born Nov. 18, 1886 in New York City. Was GE president from 1940-41 and from 1945-50. Dies Jan. 3, 1972.
- Philip D. Reed: Born Nov. 16, 1899 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Was chairman of the board from 1940-42 and 1945-1958. Dies March 10, 1989.
- Ralph Cordiner: Born in 1900 in Walla Walla, Washington. Was GE president from 1950-58 and chairman of the board and CEO 1958-1963. Dies December 6,1973.
- Gerald L. Phillippe: Born Sept. 27, 1909 in Ute, Iowa. Was GE president from 1961-63 and chairman of the board 1963-67. Dies Oct. 17, 1968.
- Fred J. Borch: Born April 28, 1910 in Brooklyn. Was GE president and CEO from 1963-67 and chairman of the board and CEO 1967-1972. Dies March 1, 1995.
- Reginald H. Jones: Born Julyl 11, 1917 in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Was GE chairman of the board and CEO from 1972-1981. Dies Dec. 30, 2003.
- John F. Welch: Born Nov. 19, 1935 in Peabody, Massachusetts. Was GE chairman of the board and CEO from 1981-2001.
- Jeff Immelt: Born Feb. 19, 1956 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Was GE chairman of the board and CEO from 2001-2017.
- John L. Flannery: Born in 1962 in Alexandria, Virginia. Currently serving as chairman of the board and will become CEO on Jan. 1, 2018.