Melvin H. Baker
Melvin Houston Baker, more than any one man, was responsible for the conception and growth of National Gypsum Company. His single dominant characteristic was optimism. "He had a boundless confidence in the future of America, the housing industry, his organization – and, obviously, in himself." -- Bob Zale
Born in poverty in the hills of Tennessee, Baker was the son of a tenant farmer. He started selling as soon as he got out of Carson-Newman College, where he earned board and tuition as a full-time janitor tending furnaces. His first job was working for a hardware auctioneer.
Baker had an evangelist's fervor for salesmanship. "Maybe I can't do anything else," he told an interviewer, "but I know how to whip up enthusiasm in people."
Baker, along with Joseph F. Haggerty and Clarence E. Williams, founded the National Gypsum in 1925. They had a new wallboard product which was lighter, stronger, and less brittle than any other similar product. All three men had worked for Beaver Board Company, a pioneer wood fiber board business which folded in 1921 when it could not meet its short-term loan obligations.
Haggerty brought the formula for the new wallboard; Williams had options on mineral rights for gypsum at Clarence Center, NY; Baker brought sales expertise. He had been national sales manager for Beaver Board. At the time the company was formed, there were 25 competitors in the industry.
The founders needed to raise $2 million to get their new company started. Although they tried, the founders could not sell stock in the conventional way. They had hired a small group of experienced salesmen before the company even had a plant. Baker put these men to work selling stock to individuals. Ultimately, the salesmen raised over $2 million.
"I remember going with Melvin on his stock-selling calls," Mrs. Baker recalled. "I remember one day in particular that was heartbreaking. No one wanted to listen to him. It was getting late, and he had time for just one more call. We parked in front of an office building, but he sat in the car for about five minutes. Finally, I asked what was the matter. He said, 'I was trying to think of some new way to tell our story.' He thought for a moment, then said, 'It's a good, honest story the way it is," and he went in. I waited for half an hour. Then, I saw him come out the door. I could tell from his walk that he'd been successful. Indeed, he had. At that moment, I was absolutely sure that National Gypsum was going to succeed."
The Clarence City Plant opened in June 1926 with 50 employees, and Baker had his sales force on the road. National Gypsum wallboard was first called National Mineral Wallboard. Sales reps strapped wallboard to their cars, the board heaved and flapped, but it would not break.
"I had heard that some fellows from the old Beaver Board Company had got together to make wallboard. I knew Mel Baker from the days when he used to call on me. But I wasn't interested in wallboard. I had all I could use. So, when a young fellow came in and said he was from National Gypsum, I started to tell him I wished him well, but let's not waste each other's time. I didn't get a chance. He brought two sawhorses out of his car, along with a pile of sash weights and a piece of his new wallboard. He put the wallboard on the sawhorses and started throwing sash weights on it. He kept loading them until his board broke. That didn't seem like much of a sales talk to me. But then, he brought out some competitive board and did the same thing. Then I caught on. His new wallboard held a third more sash weights than any of the others. Well, when the fellow finished that, he got out his order book and signed me up." -- Niagara Falls dealer
If a dealer made a plant visit, he would get an even more flamboyant demonstration of product superiority. An automobile, with a couple of self-confident employees in it, would be suspended from a section of wallboard – which would not break or crack or pull apart.
Baker's sales distribution philosophy redefined the wallboard industry: "It is our intention to supply the dealers with products obviously better than competing products and at no higher prices. We are going to limit the distribution of our products wholly to lumber and building supply dealers."
National Gypsum turned down carloads of prospective sales to outlets other than lumber and building supply dealers. Its first advertising dollars were spent on promoting the dealers.
Before the company had nationwide coverage, it had national advertising. Full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post showed pictures of the company's dealers. As each new dealer signed up to handle National Gypsum products, his photograph was pasted in a layout. When the layout was filled with dealers' pictures, it was ready to run in the Post. These ads with dealer/end-user endorsements, continued into the 1950s. One included a picture of C.D. Spangler, owner of C.D. Spangler Construction Company. C.D. Spangler's son and his family would one day purchase National Gypsum.
In 1929, Joseph Haggerty, president of National Gypsum died, and shortly after that, Clarence Williams retired due to failing health. The National Gypsum board elected Baker president.
"In the dark days of the early thirties, faith was virtually a means of exchange, a legal tender. I believe we had more of it than anything else," Baker said.
In 1932, Baker secured an order for all the wallboard used at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago which included buildings along a six-mile parkway. The project was in USG's headquarters city. Terms of the agreement were one-half in cash and one- half in notes. The order was enough to keep the company's two plants running for six months and restore the 20 percent pay cut employees had taken.
"Back in the 1930s, in the depths of the depression, my company embarked on an ambitious expansion program. There were peddlers of gloom who said we were heading into certain disaster. I freely admitted there was a possibility of failure but, at the same time, there was an opportunity to expand, to grow, and to progress. I willingly chose to follow the bold course which, though uncertain, offered great hope for the future." -- Baker
In the 1930s, opportunities developed fast for the company. Plants became available at bargain prices, new markets and product lines opened up. Fort Dodge, Rotan, Portsmouth, Dingwall Quarry, and Medicine Lodge were purchased. Savannah was constructed.
In 1936, the company had a plan for making wood fiber insulation board but needed $1.5 million to build a plant in Mobile, AL. To raise money, Baker asked a friend to invite the management of 10 investment firms to a dinner in 1937. They all came. Baker spoke briefly after dessert and asked for the money. He charmed Wall Street and the plant was oversubscribed by $500,000 on the spot.
Baker was fully committed to the war effort in the 1940s: "The management of this corporation believes that business should go all out for quick, decisive victory over Japan, and to this end, this company's resources, technical knowledge and the production at its twenty-one plants are at your disposal." – telegram from Baker to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson.
During the war years, Baker established a Post-War Planning Department to prepare for growth in the economy and the housing industry after the war ended. Most of the company's competitors anticipated a downturn in the economy after the war. The company's business quintupled.
"Ten percent of our population is now in uniform. When the war is over, they're going to want homes – we need to prepare for maximum production." -- Baker.
The 1950s continued the company's expansion and diversification.
In 1950, Baker was one of 50 outstanding businessmen given awards in industrial statesmanship during the Boston Jubilee. The award was based on evidence of unusual and meritorious contribution to the American way of life.
"Few companies anywhere can match Melvin Baker's record at National Gypsum's Savannah, Georgia, plant, where every man queried had seen him 'lots of times' and liked him," Forbes Magazine. His labor relations, as Forbes puts it, "appears best in the industry."
In 1951, the Board of Directors created a new office, Chairman of the Board. Baker was named Chairman and CEO and Lewis R. Sanderson, who had ran the Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant in McGregor, Texas, was named president.
National Gypsum continued to expand and grow during the 1960s. Baker retired from the thriving business in 1965 at 79 years of age, ending 40 years of service with the company he founded. On more than one occasion, during those years, he said: "This business is my life."
For recreation, Baker occasionally hunted pheasant, played an indifferent game of golf and delighted in flying around the country in the company's plane. In later years, he spent part of his winters in Florida. For him, recreation was an afterthought. The trappings of comfortable living belied the hard drive to accomplish which motivated him from his youth.
He was active in the Buffalo community: For 10 years, Baker was treasurer of the Erie County Council of the Boy Scouts. For more than 10 years, he served as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Crippled Children's Guild of Buffalo. He also served as director of the Buffalo Better Business Bureau, Buffalo City Planning Association, Niagara Frontier Planning Association, Buffalo Redevelopment Committee, and Chamber of Commerce. He was regional vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Melvin H. Baker died in 1976 at age 91.