Michael Owens left school at 10 and was consequently a poor speller.
He also wasn’t very good at drawing, couldn’t read a blueprint and lacked mechanical talent.
But he could visualize new inventions in three dimensions.
He also communicated well with engineers, who designed his machines to make glass bottles. “His automation of the bottle-making industry changed the course of civilization,” Quentin Skrabec, author of “Michael Owens and the Glass Industry,” told IBD. “His machines made possible pasteurized milk and baby bottles, inexpensive containers for beverages, standardized pharmaceutical bottles, and better storage for fruits and vegetables, which improved diets.”
Owens (1859-1923) was born in Mason County, W.Va.
At 9, he joined his father at a coal mine, but an injury to his eye resulted in his mother removing him and sending her son to Wheeling to become an apprentice at a glassware maker. Youngsters made up a quarter of the workforce there.
For 30 cents a day he worked two five-hour shifts, six days a week, with the heat in the factory reaching 100 degrees in the summer.
Warming Up To Move Up
Owens worked in every position, giving him the hands-on knowledge to later manage plants and think of ways to boost processes.
He didn’t waste time on recreation with his peers because of a burning ambition to own a glassmaking factory. By 15, he was a journeyman glassblower.
He had trouble early breaking through the glass ceiling into management because of discrimination against Irish Catholics.
Then came a big break from Edward Libbey. He moved Libbey Glass from Boston to Toledo, Ohio, in 1888 to save on fuel and transportation costs and avoid union strikes, which had depleted his resources. Owens responded to an ad recruiting skilled workers.
The new plant struggled to take off, and many workers were lazy or had negative attitudes, Owens found. He stuffed the suggestion box with so many ideas, Libbey appointed him superintendent.
The first thing Owens did was fire all 500 employees and shut down the operation. He then hired back only those who worked hard and recruited other old colleagues.
He led by doing, arriving before sunrise and leaving 12 hours later.
Productivity and product quality soared, with improved delivery times and fewer costly remakes.
When Owens started managing at the end of 1890, the firm had racked up a loss for the year of $3,000, or $76,500 in today’s money. By the end of 1891, it had earned $75,000, worth $1.9 million now .
Owens’ first management lesson: A workplace or project can become so toxic, it’s better to restart.
Also in 1891, Libbey opened a plant in Findlay, Ohio, where it could be powered by natural gas.
Owens was put in charge of this factory to make bulbs for Edison General Electric, whose normal supplier was crippled by a strike. The initial rate of handblowing at 29,000 a week operating around the clock for six days surpassed that of the regular vendor.
Owens had pondered ways to simplify the process in a way that would eliminate much of the work by the boys who handled the molds for each product.
Now came motivation to act: a strike threat. The Findlay mold boys, seeing they were in short supply, threatened to walk out, even though they were paid double the national average.
While the boys stayed on the job, Owens worked with the plant blacksmith to produce a mold-opening device that could be operated by a glassblower by foot, eliminating the need for some of the boys. It was the first major change in glassmaking in 2,000 years.
Owens kept tinkering — and kept the glass piece from sticking to the mold by coating the mold with a paste. He landed patents for the mold opener and paste in 1894 and made them for sale to other firms.
These two improvements lifted productivity nearly 900%. He eventually lowered the cost of bulbs by 90%, making them affordable for everyone.
General Electric (GE) was so delighted, it made Libbey Glass a regular supplier and in 1918 bought the rights to the bulb-making process.
Owens’ lesson is that innovation comes out of experience combined with deep study.
In 1893, Libbey and Owens built a factory for the public to visit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
This first fully electrified World’s Fair would draw 7 million people and launch new products like soda, hamburgers and postcards, while making international brand names of companies such as Wrigley, Pabst and Aunt Jemima.
Owens picked up valuable lessons about mass consumer marketing, and the company’s sales jumped the following year.
Returning to the Toledo factory, Owens built a machine to make small drinking glasses called tumblers and the tops for kerosene lamps called chimneys.
Meanwhile, the board of Libbey Glass saw Owens’ experiments as risky, so he and Libbey bolted and created Toledo Glass Co. in 1895.
“The Libbey-Owens team would be one of the most unique and successful industrial partnerships ever,” wrote Skrabec. “Libbey was a natural entrepreneur with strengths in marketing and finance, while Owens was the ideal intrapreneur or master inventor within the company. Together, they pioneered the whole concept of corporate research and development.”
Over the next five years, backed by engineers and mechanics, Owens launched a revolution in making glass containers.
“Owens was the antithesis of a modern director of research, who makes slow, steady progress,” said Skrabec. “He is best compared to Steve Jobs of Apple (AAPL). Both were uncredentialed and had tempers and rough personalities. Conceptualization was their specialty, and they would draw rough ideas for others to develop. They were perfectionists with big ideas who could advance technology in quantum leaps, uninhibited by previous technical paradigms or functional departments.”
The technical challenge was to find a way to have a machine create the neck of a bottle. Owens pulled it off in 1899 with the first version of an automatic bottling machine.
Other inventors would have given up due to a lack of parts. Owens had no help from later innovations like electric motors, gasoline power sources, hydraulic control values or major subassemblies.
The fifth version, which had 10,000 parts, made a 500% increase in production of bottles per hour, compared with handblown, and was ready to go commercial.
Lightning In A Bottle
Owens Bottle Machine Co. rose in 1903 to make the equipment and sell licensing. It took a royalty of half the estimated labor cost reductions and charged high fees or took company stock for exclusive rights for one industry. Its shares rocketed 2,300% by 1916.
Owens’ lesson is to focus on a big idea for innovation, then have the patience to see it through.
With the domestic market for bottles doubling from the turn of the century to 1907, Owens Bottle Machine took control of most the industry in America and Europe, making it the first U.S. company to be truly multinational, according to Skrabec.
In 1916, Owens, Libbey and another glass inventor, Irving Colburn, formed Libbey-Owens Sheet Glass Co. to develop an automated way to make better flat glass for windows in stores, homes and cars.
He was given $30,000 (equivalent to $634,000 now) a year to oversee construction and operation of a fully automated factory in Charleston, W.Va. The result was a dramatic drop in sheet glass prices, and in 1920 the company made a profit of $4.2 million, worth $47 million today. His last crusade was to promote safety glass for cars.Owens died rich at age 64. He held 49 patents and in 2007 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.
In 1929, Owens Bottle merged with Illinois Glass to form Owens-Illinois Glass Co., now Owens-Illinois Inc. (OI) of Perrysburg, Ohio. (Owens Corning started in 1935 as a partnership between Owens-Illinois and Corning Glass Works to make fiberglass insulation and still exists.) O-I is the world’s largest maker of glass containers, with 24,000 employees and revenue of $7.4 billion in 2011. In its most recent hot stock run, from 2006 to 2008, shares galloped 363%.
“Owens’ impact was profound and is still felt in our company today,” said Al Stroucken, CEO of Owens-Illinois. “Our employees feel tremendous pride in being glassmakers and in the legacy of innovation he left behind. We carry that tradition and commitment to forward thinking with us every day.”
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