Time To Correct The Record On This Pittsburgh Business Titan's Christian Roots

Posted: Oct 31, 2018 11:42 AM
Time To Correct The Record On This Pittsburgh Business Titan's Christian Roots

Is there evidence or examples of good businesses following biblical principles?

Biblical principles include faith, morality, law, education, and liberty are all of the elements of a solid economic foundation of any nation that seeks to be prosperous (See the National Monument to the Forefathers, built and dedicated during the late 1800s, is near Plymouth Rock and has simple imagery of the great wisdom and prosperity foundation of our founding era).

On the hunt to find more American biographies of Christian businessmen and women, I’ve discovered some biographers write less about or skew their subject’s Christian roots and views. One such businessman is George Westinghouse Jr. (1846-1914) whose biography, George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius, categorized his business habits as “socialist” or “puritanical” versus the reality that Westinghouse had a biblical view of business and the marketplace. Westinghouse was an American entrepreneur and engineer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He gained his first patent at the age of 19, invented the railway air brake, and was a pioneer in the natural gas and electrical industries.

While most business books and stories rave about Thomas Edison’s 1,093 patents, you’ll find that Edison’s big ego wanted his name on as many patents as possible. He also considered DC current the best for commercialization versus George Westinghouse/Nikola Tesla’s AC current. Edison used “bad press” in an attempt to discredit AC current in the “War of the Currents.” Edison lost, Westinghouse/Tesla won, and the American customers won, too. 

Edison’s autocratic inventive and centralized business habits contrast sharply with Westinghouse’s decentralized and the Christian view of the “laborer is worthy of his wages” approach. “One associate described his playing with the rotary engine as the equivalent of others playing golf.” His inventive, tinkering process gave him the “confidence to average a patent every six weeks for the rest of his life for a total of 361.” Most important was that during his lifetime his fully engaged and productive workers would produce over 3,000 patents. At the end of his life, “Westinghouse owned or controlled over 15,000 patents,…formed over 60 companies, and created millions of jobs worldwide. He had over 50,000 employees working directly for him at his death.”

Westinghouse approached the wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt as an early investor in and customer of his airbrake for trains. Hearing of his invention, Vanderbilt said, “Do you mean to tell me you can stop a railroad train by wind?” “Well, yes, inasmuch as air is wind, I suppose you are right”…“I have no time to waste on fools” said Vanderbilt, abruptly terminating the interview. Later on, Vanderbilt installed the Westinghouse airbrake on all of his trains. Col. Schoomaker, VP of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie railroad, said of Westinghouse, “Beyond doubt, he has done more than any other man…[and] what he has accomplished for the safety of travel and human life is beyond computation.”

Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the Edgar Thomson Works, was the largest in the world by 1890. “Immigrant laborers lived in poor rented one-room apartments and often whole families lived in single rooms with no running water…Employees worked 12 hour days, seven days a week and rotated shifts every two weeks. So industrial accidents were a daily occurrence, leaving a significant part of the population disabled or unemployable…Saloons and bars outnumbered grocery stores because drinking helped them avoid the reality of their condition, but took a huge chunk of potential productivity away from the company.” 

Westinghouse’s “American operations grew at a faster rate” than other industrialist companies because his essential leadership secret consisted of hiring managers who not only lead others but lectured and trained them. His other most enduring cultural secrets “were invention, innovation, employee loyalty, respect for intellectual property rights, and aggressive research and development.” He “didn’t believe that corporations had rights over individual innovation. To Westinghouse, the individual owned all rights to and rewards from any invention.” This was in stark contrast “in the Victorian era, which trampled on individual rights for more profits and industrial ‘efficiency.’” Westinghouse attracted the best and brightest even during times of labor shortages. He competed to win but did not want the trophy. He was truly a “Level Five” leader described in the book, Good to Great, by Tim Collins, not the fourth and third level leadership of Edison, Morgan, and Carnegie.

Westinghouse went on a trip to England to study railroad signaling. He observed first hand the industrial slums of poverty which Charles Dickens wrote about in his novels Bleak House and Oliver Twist and which had come to America in its mill towns. Westinghouse also followed with interest Robert Owen (1771-1858), who became a wealthy textile manufacturer entrepreneur and investor. He was one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. He designed a model community in New Lanark, Scotland which was profitable and countered the harsh industrial labor practices of the industrial revolution in England. It got the attention of industrialists around the world.

Westinghouse’s new plant and company town of Wilmerding, PA was similarly designed. But it was less utopian and more biblical and competitive and neighborly with “community” as foundational to productivity. His approach was not unlike the productivity and societal results achieved by the Guinness beer family in the book The Search for God and Guinness. The Westinghouse plant was built to integrate with the community and to be a safe environment with good lighting and ventilation, but he also built the town to complement the factory. It became an international model for industrial towns. 

Hailed by reformers and socialists as the ideal model for industrial towns. It was despised by the bankers of the time as misguided capitalism…A truly symbiotic relationship between the company and town existed that was unknown in the Victorian industrial world. This relationship reflected the kindness and humility of its founder George Westinghouse… Wilmerding was no socialist experiment for Westinghouse, but a pragmatic example of capitalism. Westinghouse put it best, “I believe in competition, it is the essence of a free economy. I think employers should compete in the improving the lot  of their workers as well as in making of more and better goods at a cheaper price. It strikes me as common sense that when men are happy and comfortable they produce more and help make a better profit for the company.”

Time after time his highly motivated engineers bested Edison’s/J.P. Morgan’s General Electric. Westinghouse actually “deplored straight, indiscriminate charity. He viewed himself as an industrial leader, not a trustee of the community’s money.” He pioneered mutual and disability insurance plans and welfare benefits with Westinghouse companies self-insurers using the company’s financial resources as collateral.

The person who takes charity thinks himself inferior. The donor feels superior. I would rather give a man a chance to earn a dollar than give him five and make him feel he’s a charity case.

-- George Westinghouse

Westinghouse viewed business and workplace fairness as integrated, not motivational. He’d often reach into his own pocket to help employees. Whether planning and building houses sold to his employees at cost or pay for employee medical treatments and pay their wages until they were fully back at work. Yet this gentle industrial giant was tough. An employee “boasted to some of his boon companions how he had ‘played it on the Old Man.’” for a homesick “free trip” to his hometown in Austria. Westinghouse sent him packing looking for other work once he heard about his scheme to play on his sympathies. Westinghouse’s approach was unique compared with other industrialists, he had a passion for the team that made him a success regardless of their social demographics.

Adam Smith wrote about the distribution of wealth in Wealth of Nations, “What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Westinghouse preferred not give food to the poor, but tools and jobs. He didn’t believe he was a steward of funds, as Andrew Carnegie did, but the wealth of Westinghouse was mostly distributed through his factories in house ownership, pensions, health expenses, and social needs and giving directly by educating his employees, including newly arrived immigrants.

In the end, Andrew Carnegie was loved by the community and hated by his employees, while Westinghouse was loved by his employees and unknown to the general community of the Pittsburgh area. While Carnegie showed how to love your neighbor for yourself, Westinghouse showed without the fanfare of expectations of productivity gains that God would bless a business if it followed biblical principles, to love your neighbor as yourself, in your business and your community.