Robert E. Scifres
Robert (Bob) Scifres interviewed on April 27, 2010, while at the Trailblazers Spring Fling. He retired in 1982 as the fourth chairman of National Gypsum Company after 40 years of service with company. He was 92 at the time of the interview with Nancy Spurlock.
Scifres began his career in 1942 at the company's Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant near McGregor, Tex. He was an electrical engineer who had graduated from Purdue University in 1938. At that time, the Bluebonnet plant had 5000 employees.
In 1945, he moved to the company's Mobile, AL plant and served as the plant engineer. The plant produced insulation board.
"I was selected to go to MIT for one year where I earned an MBA in the Sloan Fellowship program."
In 1951, he went to the National City Plant and served as plant manager. He was there a short time and, with the outbreak of the Korean War, was again back at one of the ammunition plants the company operated for the U.S. Army.
"By way of Buffalo, I went to Shoals in 1954," Scifres said. "During the plant construction I worked on community relations, speaking to groups in southern Indiana. When we started the plant, it was challenging. We never knew what was going to come up next. The process was not new, but the equipment was. There were the customary clashes between production and engineering during that time.
"USG was building a plant just two miles away. It was a race to who got into production first. USG won, but we were close behind and opened in May 1955. I first met Jack Hayes there. He was selling the Shoals production."
Both Scifres and Hayes would later become chairman and CEO of National Gypsum, a fact Scifres attributes to "timing and luck."
"We hired a young mining engineer to open the mine at Shoals. He was experienced and had worked in coal mines. He knew good people in the industry and brought them to Shoals. We did have one tragic thing happen. A worker was killed in the mine. He was not one of our employees, but a contractor's. I remember going to the funeral and seeing his little six-year-old son. It touched my heart and tears came to my eyes. It was a lesson learned. Safety has always been number one for the company. It is important for employees, and it is just good business."
Scifres remembers Chairman Melvin H. Baker as a "salesman" from the word go. We were in the New York Office one day. He knew where all the big construction jobs were. I can remember him looking out the windows and asking the salesmen if we had certain jobs.
"I was with him when he was talking to one of our bankers. The company had borrowed a large sum of money. He told the banker about our plant in Mobile and described it in flowery tones, selling the company all the time.
"When we opened the Shoals plant, we were driving to a dinner at French Lick with the lieutenant governor. The company attorney Elmer Fink was with us. Mr. Baker was telling us how the company needed young men with enthusiasm. He said there was only one 'old man's job,' and it was his!
"When I was at MIT, I was invited to attend a ceremony in Boston where he had been named one of 50 Industrial Statesmen in the United States. It was January 1950. He invited me to join him, his son, and his son-in-law in another CEO's suite in the Copley Plaza Hotel. I remember sitting quietly as the captains of industry talked.
"Mr. Baker was a hard driver, hard worker, fair, and genuine. He called it the way he saw it. He was intellectually honest, highly respected, but not feared. He was warm and down to earth."
In November 1964, Scifres went to the company's Huron Cement Company as vice president. The cement company was in Alpena, MI and the company's purchase of Huron made it the largest producer of cement in the country. From Huron, Scifres went to the company's ammunition plant in Parson's KS. The company had been the caretaker for the plant since the Korean War and had approximately 100 people there. Employment grew to 4000 during the war.
"I went back to Buffalo in December 1969. The Vietnam anti-war sentiment was growing and Colon Brown (Chairman) wanted to get out of the ammunition business. Our contract with the Army was terminated in February 1970."
Scifres was named group vice president in 1971 and chairman of the board in 1977. He served as chairman at the company's new headquarters in Dallas, TX. Chairman William North had moved National Gypsum's corporate office from Buffalo to Dallas in 1976. The company's largest division, Gold Bond Building Products, remained in Buffalo until 1978 when it was moved to Charlotte. At that time the company had seven divisions, 13,000 employees and about 50,000 shareholders.
"I didn't expect to be named chairman. Everyone thought Jack Hayes, who headed the Building Products Division, would get the job. (Hayes was named president and would succeed Scifres as chairman in 1983.)
"In my first board meeting we were discussing a $20 million project. I watched three directors change their minds twice as information was presented. It made me realize the value of the give and take during a board meeting.
"One of my jobs was to challenge the organization. We undertook an analysis of the business and I got one of my old professors from MIT to help. It was a good exercise. Anything I achieved was through everyone else.
"In 1982, the business was at a very low point. We had made plans to build two new plants and modernize others. We had to decide whether to proceed or not. I studied the history of the company and the results of cycles. When the business turned, it turned very quickly. We decided to proceed. The results came after I retired in December 1982, but it proved to be a good decision. The business went up, up, up."
After retiring from National Gypsum, Scifres worked as general campaign manager for United Way's annual fund drive in Dallas. He also worked with two organizations during the savings and loan crisis. "It opened my eyes and I was outraged."
During his trip to the Trailblazers Spring Fling in 2010, Scifres played 18 holes of golf one day and toured the Mt. Holly plant the next. "The plant is fantastic. The innovation and new processes is absolutely mindboggling."