Henry J. Kaiser: The Industrialist Who Built America

A portrait of Henry J. Kaiser.

The Life Story of Henry Kaiser

When people think of the Industrial Revolution in America, they remember industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry Ford.

However, there’s another industrialist who deserves just as much credit today. He goes by the name of Henry J. Kaiser.
Henry John Kaiser founded over 100 companies, most in the road, freight, and infrastructure industries.

He became a key player during World War II after his company acquired a government contract to build warships for the United States. Kaiser also established aluminum and steel companies.

Early Life

Henry John Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, New York, to Franz Kaiser and Anna Marie. His parents, who were German immigrants, came to settle in the United States. He was their only son.

“Having an aim is the key to achieving your best.” – Henry Kaiser

Henry’s father, Frank Kaiser, was a not-so-successful shoemaker, said to be an alcoholic too.

Due to the family’s limited income, the young Kaiser had to leave school at thirteen to assist his father, mother, and three older sisters provide for the family.

It took him three weeks to find a job as a delivery boy at a Utica Dry Goods store.

Despite working, Henry’s mother encouraged Kaiser to continue learning. The two would read books together every evening.

Kaiser later landed another job as a cash boy at a department store in New York. Next up, he became a photographer’s assistant in Lake Placid in 1902. With this job, he saved some money and moved to Washington.

Going Into Business

Henry Kaiser got another job as a salesman for a hardware company in Spokane, Washington.

He relocated his family to this location and continued working as a salesman, during which he identified a need in the automobile industry for better public roads and streets.

Kaiser seized the opportunity by starting his career as a salesman for construction materials.

During this time, he learned all he could about the materials required to construct roads and dams.

Later in 1909, he used his knowledge and joined a cement and gravel company in Spokane, where he applied his expertise in building materials while learning more about the construction industry.

Soon after, Henry Kaiser began working for a Canadian paving company in Vancouver. Unfortunately, in 1914, the company faced a catastrophe while paving a new road and had to shut down.

Henry J. Kaiser saw this as a chance to take advantage of the situation. He established his own paving company, Henry J. Kaiser Co., and used his contacts to acquire the remaining contract for his company.

After obtaining the contract, Kaiser recruited many of his former colleagues.

He, unlike his previous employers, adopted new technologies and invested in advanced road paving machines, which, although costly to acquire, proved to be a cost-effective solution.

These machines could accomplish the work of several individuals at a much lower cost. Kaiser finished the project ahead of schedule, quickly earning himself a reputation for efficiency.

Henry Kaiser’s company experienced rapid growth, securing multiple government and civil contracts in the 1920s.

One of the company’s most crucial contracts came in 1927 when the company won an $18 million contract to construct roads and bridges in Camagüey, a province in Cuba.

Kaiser’s company also played a role in constructing the Hoover Dam, a project that helped bring electricity to millions of Americans and spurred economic growth across the western United States.

The Hoover Dam project garnered widespread attention as it was one of the largest construction projects in the history of the United States.

The project’s workforce grew significantly from 106 men when the contract was awarded in March 1931 to 2,745 by the following December, ultimately reaching 5,251 workers.

By this time, the Henry J. Kaiser Company had merged with five more to form the Six Companies.

Six Companies finished constructing the Hoover Dam ahead of its planned schedule, and Kaiser, who was part of the group, was later involved in various prestigious new projects.

These projects included building dams in Bonneville, Grand Coulee, and Shasta, constructing tunnels and bridges in California and New York, and building ports and jetties along the Pacific coast.

These many government projects gave the impression that Kaiser prospered during the Great Depression.

Post-war Ventures

At the onset of World War II, Kaiser ventured beyond roads and dams into the shipbuilding industry.

He managed seven shipyards that utilized assembly-line manufacturing techniques to construct ships in as little as 4.5 days.

By the time the war ended, his shipyards had manufactured 1,490 warships for the United States Maritime Commission.

Henry Kaiser also ventured into the steel industry, building the first integrated steel mill on America’s west coast. Kaiser founded Kaiser Gypsum in 1944 and later Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation.

In the 1950s, he led the construction of the Hawaiian Village resort center. The Hilton hotel chain would later acquire this resort center in 1961.

Legacy and Impact

Kaiser’s contributions to shipbuilding, healthcare, construction, automobile manufacturing, and philanthropy continue to shape multiple industries in the United States.

For example, Kaiser’s innovative approach to shipbuilding revolutionized the industry and helped make the United States a dominant naval power during and after World War II.

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” – Henry Kaiser

Kaiser’s creation of the Kaiser Permanente health plan helped make quality healthcare more accessible and affordable to more people in the United States.

The plan’s emphasis on preventive care and its focus on the doctor-patient relationship were innovative concepts at the time and had a lasting impact on the healthcare industry.

Kaiser was a generous philanthropist throughout his life. He made significant donations to various causes and organizations. This commitment to giving back to his community inspired others to do the same and impacted American society.

Successes and Criticisms of Kaiser’s Legacy

Henry Kaiser’s innovative approach to business, his commitment to his employees’ welfare, and his contributions to the war effort and healthcare industry are some of the successes that have had a lasting impact.

His criticisms, however, are also just as pertinent. Criticism toward Kaiser describes him as being tough on unions and using non-unionized workers during World War II.

Furthermore, people have criticized Kaiser’s construction projects – particularly the building of the Hoover Dam – for causing significant environmental impact.

The dam disrupted the natural flow of the Colorado River and caused damage to the environment. He also had a reputation for treating women poorly.

Examples of Kaiser’s Continuing Influence in Modern Times

Henry Kaiser’s impact is visible in multiple areas in today’s society. Some examples are:

  • Road Construction: Henry Kaiser is responsible for the construction of many paved roads, streets, bridges, and lots of other infrastructure that helped to improve communication and transportation in the US to this day.
  • Shipbuilding: Kaiser’s innovative shipbuilding methods, which allowed for the rapid production of Liberty Ships during World War II, have had a lasting impact on the shipbuilding industry. Today, many shipyards use similar techniques to produce ships more quickly and efficiently.
  • Energy & Water: Kaiser’s construction projects, including the building of the Hoover Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam, have significantly impacted the United States. These dams provide hydroelectric power and water resources to millions of people.

Personal Life

  • Marriage and Family

Henry J. Kaiser married twice in his lifetime; the first was to Bess Fosburgh in 1911, with whom he had two sons, Edgar and Henry Jr. After Bess died in 1951, Kaiser married Alyce Chester soon after. He further adopted her son, Michael Kaiser.

Kaiser was a devoted family man known for being close to his children. He believed in spending quality time with his family and often took them on vacations to exotic global locations.

  • Interests and Hobbies Outside of Business

Outside his work life, Kaiser was an avid golfer and enjoyed playing the sport in his free time.

He was also interested in flying and owned his airplane and was an automobile enthusiast who enjoyed cars and projects surrounding motors.

The Death of Henry J. Kaiser

Henry J. Kaiser died on August 24, 1967, in Honolulu, Hawaii, at age 85.

Lessons Learned from the Life of Henry J. Kaiser

The life of Henry J. Kaiser provides several valuable lessons that can inspire and guide individuals in their personal and professional lives. Here are a few lessons we can pick from his life:

  1. Seize Opportunities: Kaiser saw an opportunity when the Canadian paving company he worked for declared bankruptcy and shut down. He started his own company and continued with the government road project. Seizing opportunities like this and picking where others have left off can also prove beneficial to us.
  2. Take Care of Your Employees: Kaiser recognized his employees were the backbone of his business and provided them with fair wages, good working conditions, and healthcare benefits.
  3. Give Back to Your Community: Kaiser was deeply committed to improving the lives of working people. He used his wealth and influence to create healthcare systems and educational institutions that benefited the broader community.

Conclusion

Throughout his business career, Henry J. Kaiser became known for his innovative business strategies and commitment to improving the lives of working people.

From his early days in the construction industry to his later success in shipbuilding and healthcare, his contributions to American society were significant.

He inspires many entrepreneurs to be innovative and work not only for themselves but for their communities too.

“You can’t sit on the lid of progress. If you do, you will be blown to pieces.” – Henry Kaiser

Timeline.Henry Kaiser Timeline

1882:

 Henry John Kaiser is born in Sprout Brook, New York.

1903 – 1906:

Kaiser becomes a salesman and partner in a photographic business in Lake Placid, New York.

1906:

 Kaiser moves to Spokane, Washington, and starts working in construction.

1907:

 Kaiser marries Bess Fosburgh.

1914:

 Kaiser starts his own construction company, Henry J. Kaiser Co., specializing in paving.

1927:

 Kaiser begins building roads and infrastructure on contract with the United States government.

1931:

 Kaiser’s company is one of the prime contractors in a consortium called the Six Companies Inc. involved in building the Hoover Dam.

1940:

Kaiser’s shipyards start building Liberty Ships for the United States government.

1942:

 Kaiser’s shipyards reached peak production, building a warship in four days.

1944:

Kaiser opens the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, which later becomes Kaiser Permanente.

1945:

 Kaiser establishes an automobile company, the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.

1946:

 Kaiser founds Kaiser Aluminum.

1948:

Kaiser founds the Kaiser Family Foundation.

1951:

Kaiser’s wife Bess dies. He marries Alyce Chester.

1955:

Kaiser moves to Hawaii with his family.

1956:

Kaiser Industries appear to oversee the various companies, including Kaiser Steel and Kaiser Aluminum.

1957:

Kaiser partners with Warner Brothers to promote its products by sponsoring TV shows.

1967:

Kaiser dies in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Having an aim is the key to achieving your best.”- Henry Kaiser

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • 1. Who Was Henry J. Kaiser, and What Did He Do?

Henry J. Kaiser was an American industrialist and entrepreneur.

He was responsible for creating many industries throughout his career but became known for shipbuilding and his contributions to World War II.

He built Liberty Ships at a remarkable pace, significantly contributing to the Allies’ victory.

  • 2. Why Was Henry J. Kaiser Important?

Henry J. Kaiser was important in American industry and played a paramount role in its development during the 20th century.

He contributed to many industries, including aviation, shipbuilding, construction, and steel production.

  • 3. What Role Did Henry Kaiser Play in the War?

During World War II, Henry Kaiser built Liberty Ships for the US Navy, which was crucial in helping to supply troops and materials to the front lines and eventually in helping the Allies win the war.

  • 4. How Rich Was Henry Kaiser?

Henry J. Kaiser’s industrial empire was estimated at $2 billion at his death in 1967.

  • 5. What Did Henry Kaiser Do for Health Care?

Henry J. Kaiser pioneered healthcare when he founded the Kaiser Permanente health plan, one of the first prepaid plans in the United States.

It was a revolutionary concept then and helped transform the country’s healthcare industry.

  • 6. What Made Henry Kaiser a National Hero?

Henry J. Kaiser made significant contributions to American industry and society.

The two most significant ones that made him a national hero were his contribution to the war effort during World War II by building Liberty Ships and Victory Ships at a remarkable pace, making a significant contribution to the Allies’ victory, as well as his commitment to his employees’ welfare and for his contributions to social causes.

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