One of the leading industrialists of the Gilded Age, at a time when class resentments simmered, Henry Clay Frick was nothing if not fearless.
He stood down strikers, boycotts, even bullets.
On July 23, 1892, Alexander Berkman, a Russian writer and anarchist who reviled Frick for his robust exercise of capitalism, tried to gun him down at his office in Pittsburgh. Berkman missed Frick’s vital organs, but still hit his neck and back. Reeling from his injuries, he told colleagues to resist the hectoring demands of agitprop leftists such as Berkman.
“I do not think I will die, but whether I do or not, the company will pursue the same policies,” he said to his aides.
Frick astonished his doctors by returning to work within days of the attack. The assassination attempt took place on a Saturday. As a physician tended to his wounds that day, the titan remarked sardonically, “Don’t make it too bad, doctor, for I must be at the office on Monday.”
That defined Frick’s relentless work ethic. While his competitors slumbered, he worked furiously through pain, both physical and psychological, including tragic deaths in his family. At his most hard-charging, he was known to begin work around 3 a.m.
The tenacity and resourcefulness of Frick (1849-1919) were evident early in his life. Before the age of 30, he became a millionaire by launching a business in Pennsylvania’s embryonic steel industry.
The son of a struggling farmer in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, Frick always knew he would have to make his own way in the world. At the age of 14, he began clerking at a store, adopted stylish dress and practiced good manners to impress customers, and studied business feverishly.
Sensing that he had a knack for figures, he threw himself into accounting in his late adolescence. Through his mother’s relatives, he found a job as an accountant at a family whiskey distillery, picking up skills that would serve him well the rest of his life. He also made enough contacts and money through that job to found at the mere age of 21 the Frick Coke Co.
A staggeringly ambitious undertaking for a twentysomething, resting upon risky loans, Frick Coke made use of innovative steel manufacturing methods. Frick saw an opportunity to corner the iron industry before it took off by rapidly building ovens that produced coke, a fuel essential to the production of iron and steel.
He ran his business with a thoroughness that impressed bank officers. One official, after inspecting Frick Coke, advised a colleague: “Give him the money. Land’s good, ovens well built; manager on job all day, keeps books evenings. … Knows his business down to the ground.”
By age 30, Frick had a virtual monopoly on Pittsburgh’s iron and steel industry. An estimated 80% of the coke used by that industry came from his coking ovens.
“Henry Clay Frick reflected the spirit of his times. No opportunity was too daunting, no potential reward too challenging. He recognized that America was growing exponentially and that he was in the right place at the right time with the right ideas,” Robin Nicholson, director of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh, told IBD. “But success — especially in the coal and steel industries — depended on backbreaking manual labor, and a gentler man might have quailed at what it took to be successful in a late 19th century industrial nation.”
Money And Marriage
Flush with money, Frick moved in 1881 to Pittsburgh, where he purchased a mansion for $25,000 (worth $600,000 now) in the Italianate style. That same year he married Adelaide Childs, the daughter of a prosperous shoe manufacturer, and they embarked on family life. Only two of their four children, however, survived past infancy or childhood.
Frick buried his grief in work, devoting his energy to working with the mega-industrialist Andrew Carnegie, with whom he had grown familiar through Pittsburgh high society. That joint venture was the precursor to United States Steel (X).
Together, Frick and Carnegie capitalized on the demand for steel that exploded after the creation of railroads across America. Businessmen and government officials desperately needed steel for their projects, and they turned to Frick and Carnegie to get it.
This made both industrialists enormously wealthy, but disagreements led them to part ways in 1899. Such was the bad blood between the two that when Carnegie requested a meeting 20 years later, Frick responded by saying to an intermediary: “Yes, you can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him. Tell him I’ll see him in hell.”
By 1900, Frick had lost a friendship but gained a fortune. He successfully forced Carnegie into a $30 million settlement (worth $875 million now) after their fallout.
Tired from this feud and from his many battles with unions in Pittsburgh, Frick moved to New York City in the early 1900s. He accepted J.P. Morgan’s offer to join the new board of United States Steel Corp. Frick also adopted a new avocation: philanthropy.
“Frick wanted to emulate the British aristocracy,” said the New York novelist and psychologist Stanley Nass. “And so he got into the collection of art.”
The name Frick for most New Yorkers is associated not with steel but with culture. To this day they flock to his neoclassical mansion on Fifth Avenue to marvel at the Frick Collection, a museum that features some of the finest works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Renoir, Van Dyck and other masters of Western art.
Even in his 40s, Frick envisioned that his mansion, built at a cost of $5 million, would serve as an art museum after his death. Impressed by homes built around art collections that he had visited in London, he ordered the architect of his Fifth Avenue mansion to design a home in which his art purchases could be easily accommodated. Indeed, the Titian paintings that tourists see today hung in the living room were placed there by Frick himself.
“Frick recognized that art and beauty were a critical part of a modern cultivated society and that this was an area in which he could apply his entrepreneurial skills,” said Nicholson. “With the same determination he used to build his business, he built one of the great art collections in America and ensured that it would be enjoyed in perpetuity.”
Frick stands as one of the most generous philanthropists of his age, giving to charity well over $2 billion in today’s money. And unlike many of his preening Gilded Age contemporaries, he didn’t advertise his largesse.
“His charitable endeavors merit the highest praise. At $117 million (or $2.3 billion now), they dwarf those of Heinz and Westinghouse, and as a percentage of his estate, they exceed the bequests of his friend A.W. Mellon,” according to the philanthropist William S. Dietrich. “Andrew Carnegie was a beloved figure; he worked at it. He never missed an opportunity at every stage of his career to burnish his reputation and place in history. Frick did not.”
Frick knew that his capitalist success and squabbles with unions had soured a segment of the U.S. population on him, but he didn’t care. He trusted his gut instincts.
Strike And Breakup
One of the reasons Frick fell out with Carnegie is that the latter resented his independence and tenacity. Wanting to be liked, Carnegie undercut Frick’s resistance to union pressure by casting himself as a friend to the working man. During the infamous Homestead Steel Strike in 1892, Carnegie was off vacationing in Europe while Frick stared down the strikers. That strike culminated in deadly riots, which resulted in many injuries and 11 deaths.
Frick’s refusal to capitulate to the demands of the unions saved the company and paved the way for its success. Privately, the vacationing Carnegie appreciated Frick’s fortitude. Publicly, he made noise to the press that he would have handled the strike differently.
Carnegie found Frick difficult; Frick found Carnegie an undermining and cowardly colleague. Lead, follow or get out of the way — that maxim was Frick’s philosophy of business. In a moment of pique, Frick once wrote to Carnegie: “I cannot stand fault-finding and I must feel that I have the entire confidence of the power that put me where I am. … I know I can manage both Carnegie Brothers and Frick Coke successfully.”
He did and became wealthy beyond his wildest childhood imaginings. “Oh, I’ll be worth $200,000 someday,” he said as a youngster to his sister. That little boy turned into a titan of the Gilded Age worth by the time of his death over $3 billion in today’s money.
The Gilded Age industrialist put the steel in America.
Lesson: Tenacity combined with wisdom seals success.
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