A blueprint for entrepreneurial success

Last modified: 4/16/2015 1:40:13 PM
CONWAY — As a young engineer, James S. Hardigg of Conway saw firsthand the dynamics of labor relations in his industry.

Whether it was facing intimidation or violence at the hands of union officials or working under bosses who engaged in dishonest business practices or took all the credit for his own hard work, Hardigg decided early on that if he ran a business, he’d do it much differently than some his various employers.

So, he did.

In his new memoir, “A Purposeful Path: Engineering, Ethics and Entrepreneurship,” Hardigg, 92, recounts the journey and moral founding principles that took his company, Hardigg Industries, to the top of the packing container industry and made it a fixture in South Deerfield for decades until its sale to Pelican Products in 2008, all while adhering to a strict code of ethics that made him loved among the vast majority of his employees.

Engineering

Hardigg’s career in engineering began with what he called a philosophical question: What could we learn by traveling into outer space?

Shortly after he posited the notion, he resolved to try to help find a way to make it a reality and reached out to Dr. Robert Goddard, a pioneer in the field, to ask how he could prepare for a career in space exploration.

Goddard told him to go to a good school, study mechanical engineering, and then come see him when he was done. Unfortunately, he was never able to take Goddard up on his offer, as he died while Hardigg was still in school. After being passed up for military service in World War II due to changes in tuberculosis testing procedures while attending Dartmouth College, Hardigg finished his degree in mathematics, then enrolled in engineering school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Afterward, he secured a job working to develop jet engines with Westinghouse, which he said was the closest thing he could find to working on rockets since NASA had not yet been created and he presumed any space program the United States was working on was being kept secret.

That, he said, was where he was first exposed to industrial labor relations between managers and employees, as well as the effect that unions had on his workplace.

“I didn’t go there to struggle with industrial relations or anything, I wanted to work on jet engines,” he said. “I didn’t want to join the union or worry about that type of thing. I’d heard a lot of bad things about them in West Virginia, where my grandmother lived.”

Not soon after, though, a vote to unionize was taken among the company’s workers. Hardigg said he was one of only 11 other employees who voted against the idea. After that union, the United Electrical Workers, was expelled from the CIO, Hardigg said, a new union had to be chosen to represent the workers.

“We could vote for the UE, or the Westinghouse Salaried Employee’s Union, or no union at all,” he said.

Though he had no real experience in labor relations, he was elected as the chairman of a number of meetings to discuss each possibility’s point of view. Eventually, he recommended voting for the WSEU because they were the least prone to striking or committing violence at factory gates.

After a period of good relations with the company managers, Hardigg said the UE called a strike after the Navy asked Westinghouse to remove two of its employees, but didn’t inform the engineers in his own union. When he and his fellow engineers tried to enter the building for work, the members of the other union blocked their way and assaulted one of his friends when he confronted them. In another incident, he says he was beaten by one of the UE’s officials.

“The union just kept everyone unhappy,” Hardigg said.

But unions weren’t the only aspect of labor relations that disturbed him during his time at Westinghouse, Hardigg said. Oftentimes, company management turned down his proposals for how projects could be completed more efficiently and ideas for new products, even though he could prove they would be better than the existing ones.

Subsequent employers presented him with the same set of conditions and challenges; he suspected many of them received work through bribery or engaged in other dishonest practices.

So, he quit.

Entrepreneurship

Eventually, after working as a private consultant and being part of a number of projects to make shipping containers sturdier and more protective, he decided to start up his own company in a mill building in South Hadley, which he could manage based on his own principles.

The company, one he initially dubbed Hardigg Engineering, worked under contracts for the military, which asked him to develop cases that could store and protect the over 900 delicate spare parts for the Polaris submarine-launched nuclear missile, among other projects.

In 1958, he moved the company to South Deerfield and renamed it Hardigg Industries. There, he ventured into making containers for industrial lead-acid batteries, perfecting new methods of doing so — rotational molding and hot-plate welding, for example — that saw the company become an industry leader. At one point, he said, it was the only company producing such cases in the country.

The company’s success continued until it became a top supplier of equipment cases to the U.S. military.

“When we were supplying the military, a major once pointed out some of the cases they were using. He pointed to the first and said, ‘Those are good,’ then to the second and said, ‘Those are a bit better.’ Then,” Hardigg recalled, “he pointed to the Hardigg cases and said, ‘But those, those things last forever!’ We had very few complaints.”

Ethics

Throughout that time, Hardigg strived to make his employees as comfortable as he could, providing good benefits and one of the country’s first 401(k) retirement plans.

“When you have Social Security or a pension, it goes away when the person dies so their heirs don’t get anything. The 401(k) lets the person leave the rest to their heirs, so I think it’s superior,” he said.

When the company was making enough money, it instituted some measure of profit sharing to provide workers with extra income beyond their regular salaries, a practice he first came across in a book about the Lincoln Electric Company and had hoped to engage in his whole life.

“The purpose was to show that a manufacturing company in particular can be run so that its people believe in it. We achieved that,” Hardigg said.

He said the roughly 50 policies he set for the company were fair and fairly administered. He also adhered to an employee evaluation method developed in 1938 by the Employer’s Association of the Northeast, which studies each position and gives it a labor grade and corresponding pay scale.

“You don’t study the person right away, you study the job. It doesn’t take race or religion or gender into consideration, or anything of the sort. I found it to be completely neutral,” he said.

Hardigg said he thinks keeping a company’s employees happy in their work is crucial to maintaining a free society and from what he said he’s heard from many of the people who worked for him, most of them enjoyed what they did.

Hardigg retired when the company was sold in 2008, and now spends his time working out physics equations with hopes to improve vehicle safety or solve other problems he sees arise. But he’s quite pleased with the legacy he left at Hardigg Industries.

“I think we have proved that these principles of organization were successful for the people we employed and I think they would be with most other groups,” Hardigg said. “We didn’t have all the answers, but we had some of them. If the aim of people running a business is not just to make money for themselves, which is too often what business schools teach, but to work for the general good and honestly try to serve it, then they and the people they’re working with can come up with fair policies with the idea that everybody has some legitimate interest. If you can serve those, you can have an organization that is productive and satisfactory to its people.”

Hardigg is selling his memoir for $18 each — the cost to produce each copy — and hopes to soon have it listed on his own website and Amazon.com so that other business owners can read it and draw inspiration from it for their own companies.

You can reach Tom Relihan at:
trelihan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264
On Twitter, follow @RecorderTom




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