Henry J. Kaiser (1882 – 1967)

The Industrialist With Something To Prove

Henry J. Kaiser was a high achiever and entrepreneur from early on.  Born in 1882 in Sprout Brook, New York, he started working in a department store at 16, by 20 was running a photography studio and in 1906 when he was 24 he founded his first company, doing road construction in Washington State.  His company was so successful that it was one of the six companies contracted in 1931 by the US Department of Energy to build the world’s largest dam, Hoover, on the Colorado River.  Kaiser, one of the guiding hands of the project, brought it in under budget and early.

Kaiser’s ability to over deliver would serve America and the world well during World War II when his shipyards were the primary manufacturers of Liberty Ships, one of the main cargo platforms for keeping the allies supplied across an ocean filled with German U-boats. Indeed, the U-boats would sink over 2,500 merchant and military vessels over the course of the war.

One of the major advances driven by Kaiser was the substituting of welding for riveting.  The result early on (and later overcome) was the fact that the welds could and did crack in the extreme cold of the far North Atlantic and Baltic Sea, but the far more efficient manufacturing process allowed shipyards (Kaiser’s and 17 others) to build 2,710 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945, or approximately two ships a day for four years!

The industrial might that allowed the Liberty Ships and others – like the Escort Carriers, half the size and cost of a typical carrier – would be one of the major reasons that the allies were able to sustain early losses and eventually win the war. 

During the war Kaiser implemented the beginnings of the thing for which his name is most likely known today, Kaiser Permanente, the healthcare company.  Initially the system was set up to offer services for the Kaiser workforce but after the war it expanded to include family members and later it would go on to offer healthcare services and insurance to families and individuals across the country.

After the war Kaiser turned his sights elsewhere.  In 1945 he started the Kaiser-Frazer Automobile Company with veteran automobile executive Joseph Frazer.  While the company manufactured the sleek, ebullient designs we’re all familiar with from the period, by 1955 the company abandoned the American market for Argentina.  Along the way, in 1955 Kaiser bought Willys-Overland, the company that manufactured the Army utility workhorse, Jeep and named it Kaiser Jeep. 

As if building cars and providing healthcare weren’t enough, in 1945 he founded Kaiser Aluminum, building an integrated giant that echoed the structure of the giants of the Robber Baron period, like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Ford’s Ford Automobile and J.P. Morgan’s US Steel. Kaiser Aluminum owned everything from the mining and refining of bauxite to the manufacturing of fabricated and semi-fabricated aluminum products and virtually every step in between.

Later he ventured into real estate – developing projects in California and Hawaii – and television production.  A master of cross marketing, Kaiser worked with Hollywood in the 1950s to develop and promote shows like Maverick and Hawaii Eye which he utilized to advertise Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Jeeps and of course his Hawaii development. 

By the time he died in 1967, Henry J. Kaiser had crisscrossed the nation and had an impact felt around the world.  Today tourists visiting Hawaii stay in his hotel, residents of Panorama City in California live in a community he built, citizens of numerous states use energy and water that traces back to the Hoover Dam and billions of people around the world have enjoyed 75 years of freedom because of the help he provided in defeating the Axis during WWII.

Not bad for a guy who started out having to prove to the father of the girl he wanted to marry that he was industrious enough to support her before they would be allowed to marry!