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He's still a company man Founder's son: Alonzo G. Decker Jr., son of one of the founders of Black & Decker, helped spark the do-it-yourself movement. As he approaches his 89th birthday, he maintains his connection to the family business.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One day in the 1940s, when defense contractors ordered still more Black & Decker Corp. drills, Alonzo G. Decker Jr. was perplexed.

"Are they breaking down?" asked Decker, then the company's vice president of manufacturing and engineering.

"No, they're disappearing," someone replied. "Women are taking them home in their lunch baskets."

Decker voiced his reaction to the company's board: "When females are taking drills home we ought to be making something just for the home."

Black & Decker, of course, did.

About 50 years later, Decker, the son of the Towson company's co-founder, can claim more than fatherhood of the do-it-yourself movement -- a movement that has spawned racks of magazines, huge hardware store chains and even a top-rated television comedy.

At a time when few companies founded in Baltimore remain linked to their founders -- if alive at all -- Decker and the company his father founded stand out.

Last year alone, Parks Sausage Co., founded in Baltimore by Henry Parks in 1951, almost disappeared before it was bought by former football star Franco Harris. In nearby Sparks, Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., the grandnephew of McCormick & Co. Inc.'s founder, relinquished his CEO title. And PHH Corp., the Hunt Valley company founded in Baltimore, will soon be bought by a New Jersey company.

But to the surprise of many -- including the company's new hires -- Black & Decker still has a Decker.

Two weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Alonzo G. "Al" Decker Jr., likely holds more than one record for corporate longevity.

Early start

As a toddler, Al Decker napped weekends on his father's desk at the company's Calvert Street factory in Baltimore. He began working for the company as a high school kid, after it had moved to Towson. During the Great Depression, he was the first employee let go by his father and, later, the first hired back. He joined the company's board in 1940 and served as its CEO from 1964 to 1975. Still a member of the company's board, Al Decker is the final link to the company's founding families, or as he says, "the last of the tribe." Decker long ago departed from the day-to-day operations of Black & Decker. He now lives full time at the Money Point Farm near Cecilton, 400 acres where two converted farm cottages constitute a friendly yellow lodge that overlooks the Sassafras River.

But Decker, who used Money Point as a weekend retreat during his years as CEO, keeps busy. Ask Decker if he hunts on his property like many of his friends. "Hell, yes," he says.

He still works every Tuesday and Wednesday at the company's headquarters. He and his wife, Virginia, commute and spend evenings at a Towson condominium.

Still engineering

Still, as ever, Decker remains an engineer. He spends much of his time grafting fruit trees, placing branches from healthy plants into unhealthy ones to help them blossom.

Decker explains his vitality as a matter of physics and gravity.

"My normal weight was always 165," he said. "But when I turned 70 or thereabouts, my weight started going down. I now weigh 127 pounds. I don't have much to carry, so it's easy for me to get around."

Decker's aptitude for engineering is a powerful argument for genes. His father, Alonzo G. "Lon" Decker, who had a seventh-grade education, connected an alarm clock to a stable hopper as a child in Orangeville. When the alarm rang, the hopper opened and fed horses -- so he wouldn't have to wake up. In one of his first jobs, he buried himself in the Pratt Library to study watchmaking and emerged as the inventor of the taxicab meter.

Division of labor

The senior Decker met S. Duncan Black in 1906, when both men were 23 and employed by Rowland Telegraph Co. Four years later, in 1910, they started the Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. Through the tenures of two Blacks and two Deckers, the company's formula remained the same: The Blacks were sales and marketing, the Deckers were engineering and innovation.

"I don't know who planned that," Al Decker said. "But it worked."

On Saturdays and Sundays, the senior Decker took his son to the company's factory while his wife took care of their daughter. "My whole life really started at Black & Decker and has been with it ever since," Al Decker said.

Before high school, young Al Decker decided to be an engineer. Naturally, he wanted to attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation's premier engineering schools. Since he lived in Towson, in Baltimore County, he had to pay.

"I rode an hour on the streetcar there and an hour back," he recalled.

The rewards were great, Decker said. The school's director, an alumnus of Cornell University's engineering school, one of the best in the country, steered Decker to the college.

Charted course

For as long as Decker can remember, working for Black & Decker was inevitable. At Cornell, where recruiters swarmed on graduating engineers, Decker didn't interview with anybody.

"What are you going to do when you get out of here?" his friends asked.

" 'I'm going to work at Black & Decker," Decker said he replied. "That's all there is to it. As long as I can remember, there was no other thought in my mind."

After his graduation, Decker traveled abroad for the already profitable company in 1930. His missions were to sell a rotary car polisher and to set up operations in the Soviet Union. It didn't all go smoothly. During a demonstration in Paris, the polisher stripped paint from a car.

"That was one of the scariest things that ever happened to me," he said.

But scarier times followed. During the Depression, around Christmas in 1930, when Decker was 22 and demonstrating the company's products in Atlantic City, N.J., the father summoned his son.

" 'Son, I want to talk with you tomorrow, so come see me in the office,' " Decker remembers his father saying. "So when I went in, he said, 'Business is really going to hell.' And he said, 'We're going to have to lay off an awful lot of people. And I'm not going to lay off anybody else, as long as you're working here. So, you're going to be No. 1.' "

Decker, who sold soap flakes to grocery stores for $8 a week, was later hired back as a floor sweeper for 25 cents an hour.

The Depression had more than financial costs for the Deckers. The senior Decker had a nervous breakdown. "For nearly a year, he couldn't drive a car," Decker said. "I used to drive him to work."

When the company regained its footing, Al Decker worked in a variety of jobs.

"His father had him working in all aspects of the company," said Charles Costa, a veteran of the company and friend of Decker. "He went from spot to spot to spot. He knew the business like the back of his hand."

Innovation

Decker's education allowed him to invent cordless products -- a move that revolutionized repairs and boosted the company's fortunes. He also brought an academic edge to manufacturing, introducing studies aimed at boosting efficiencies.

In one project, Decker led a team that created chart boards 10 feet long and 4 feet high that listed manufacturing machines, their rates and their capacities. He started a nighttime study apprenticeship program to improve the quality of foremen.

"He was a real leader, a no-nonsense kind of guy, but a very fair person," said Costa, who participated in the apprenticeship program. "He was a man who gave people a chance to prove themselves."

Decker also recommended the purchase of DeWalt, the professional power tool division that is now one of Black & Decker's strongest divisions.

Decker succeeded Bob Black, the brother of Duncan Black, as CEO in 1964 and as chairman in 1967.

During Decker's tenure as CEO, the company's sales increased from about $100 million to $600 million. "They were the biggest, best 10 years of the company's history," he said.

Salad days

The company attracted takeover offers. But Decker and Bob Black were never interested. "We wanted to build our own company," Decker said. "We wanted to run our own company. Too many people, all they want is money. That isn't what we were in business for."

Accepting any offer might serve shareholders in the short run, Decker said. But to him and Black, the idea of running a company superseded the desire for money. For the record, Decker said, he would oppose any purchase of Black & Decker, "no matter what."

Transition

Decker gave up the CEO post in 1975 and the chairmanship in 1978, at age 70. Giving up a huge role in the family company was difficult at first.

"It's not now," he said. "My special role now is not to interfere with a thing unless there is something really strange and unusual going on."

Black & Decker's chairman and CEO, Nolan D. Archibald, who became CEO in 1985, was impressed by Decker's integrity and his knowledge of the industry.

The presence of a founding family member on the board boosted his ambition.

"Clearly, you wanted to do a great job and the best job you could," he said.

Since then, he said, Decker has been an "incredible" director. "Even at his age, he's alert and bright and still understands what goes on in the business world," Archibald said.

Costa calls Decker the board's "elder statesman."

"He remains very sensitive to the reputation of the company and its general business health," he added.

Decker also serves an important practical purpose, said Costa, whose office is adjacent to Decker's. When sales associates are hired, they meet Decker, who tells of the company's founding and his role in it.

"They're surprised to know there's still a Mr. Decker," Costa said.

Decker is grateful that his resume would include just one company, Black & Decker. "Not many people get an opportunity like that," he said.

Charitable work

Now, Decker gives a lot of his time and money away. He serves as a trustee on the boards of Maryland Institute, College of Art and Washington College in Chestertown. In 1995, Decker contributed $1 million to Johns Hopkins University's School of Continuing Studies.

"I think he contributes to us because we are innovative, experimental and pragmatic," said Stanley C. Gabor, dean of the Hopkins School of Continuing Studies. "And he is that way. This man is not afraid to take chances. And when you deal with nontraditional students, you tend to take chances."

And Decker gives to nature. When he and his wife pass away, development at Money Point and another roughly 600 acres owned by the Deckers will be forbidden. Decker's explanation: "I like the place the way it is."

Friends expect Decker to serve on the board as long as he is capable.

Some say that Decker, who first slept on a Black & Decker desk when he was three, will probably die as a board member.

That may well happen. "As long as I can be alive and be there," said Decker, "it's nice to have a man on the board whose name is part of the company."

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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