Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Henry J. Kaiser (1882 - 1967) - Famous Businessman

Henry J. Kaiser vault at Mountain View Cemetery
Main Mausoleum

Kaiser, a native of upstate New York, left school as a teenager to work in a camera shop for no pay.  He made an agreement with the owner that he would earn a salary once he had doubled the shop’s business, and within a year, Kaiser had tripled profits, driving the owner to exhaustion and convincing him to sell the business to Kaiser -- who was seventeen.

In 1913 Kaiser was working for a gravel and cement dealer in Washington when one of his clients, a Canadian road-building firm, went out of business.  He got a loan to take over the contract and finished the job at a profit.  From that time until 1930 he built California dams, Mississippi levees, and highways, including 200 miles of road and 500 bridges in Cuba, while establishing sand and gravel plants to supply his own materials.

Hoover Dam
Between 1931 and 1945, he helped organize combinations of construction companies to build the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee Dams, as well as other large projects.

During World War II he ran seven shipyards that used assembly-line production to build ships in as little as 4 1/2 days, and by the end of the war his yards had produced 1,490 ships for the U.S. Maritime Commission.  In 1941-1942 he built the only integrated steel mill on the West Coast to make steel for his shipyards.

He established Kaiser Gypsum in 1944, and bought up Alcoa aluminum plants to supply his Kaiser-Frazer auto business, but he discontinued auto production in 1953 after an industry slump.  By that time Kaiser Aluminum& Chemical was becoming highly profitable, and from 1954 to 1960 he undertook the construction of the Hawaiian Village resort on Oahu’s Waikiki Beach -- which he sold in 1961 to Hilton for $21,000,000.

Henry J. Kaiser
In 1942 Kaiser established what is now known as the Kaiser-Permanente Health Plan, one of the earliest health maintenance organizations in the country.  The plan built 19 hospitals and now provides preventive and acute care for over 6,600,000 people.

In 1958, Kaiser bought Lake Merritt property from Holy Names College and built his 28-story headquarters building there.  By 1977, Kaiser Industries was dissolved, ending an era.

[Extracted from notes by Docent Chris Pattillo quoting the Oakland Tribune of May 26, 1996, and Beth Bagwell’s Oakland, the Story of a City.  Additional information is from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on Henry J. Kaiser.]

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