A Life Well Spent

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.
                                                Leonardo Da Vinci

Harry Heltzer died last week and Harry was not exactly a household name, but then at 94 he’d been out of the public eye for quite a time.  Unless your eye is attracted to reflective green highway signage, the stuff of expressway turnoffs that spreads familiarity across the nation’s roads.

Harry invented it.

I guess he didn’t make any money out of the idea, because at the time he came up with the it, he worked for 3M and that sort of thing belongs to the company.  Matter of fact, he worked his whole life there, but it’s a side-issue anyway, the connective tissue of who Harry was and what he did that you and I might relate to.  Personally, I like that signage.

HeltzerBut there’s more to the story and, as DaVinci’s quote suggests, Harry’s life was well spent.  In typical Horatio Alger style, Harry started out at 3M fresh out of college and, because it was during the Depression (the one we’ve come to capitalize), he began as a manual laborer at twelve bucks a week.  Didn’t matter that he had an engineering degree, it was still manual labor, take it or leave it. Hard physical work and not a lot of money for it, but people were glad to have anything in those days and twelve bucks wasn’t bad when you could buy a damned good lunch for two-bits.

Harry stuck around and rose to run the company.

The figuring out of the glass-bead reflective surface didn’t win him the keys to the executive suite, but it got him noticed and from then on Harry Heltzer made his own breaks.  The interesting thing to me is that under Harry’s direction, 3M expanded overseas to 150 countries and company earnings grew continually as their list of products grew to 30,000. Quite an achievement. A world-view in the days just after world-war.

The other thing I find interesting is that 3M didn’t find it necessary to bring in an outsider with star-power to grow their company.  Didn’t even think about it, because Harry was good enough, more than good enough.  No multi-million dollar signing bonus because, after all, CEO is not a position at third base or at least it wasn’t in the late sixties.  No golden parachute required for Harry in case of screw-up, because he wasn’t hired to screw up, so there were no outrageous financial arrangements of any kind.

These days corporate CEOs are rock stars and yet it’s a toss-up whether they will help grow the company, bust it or just maneuver around trying to stay out of jail and land their next big job.  Harry got and held and succeeded at management the time honored and old-fashioned way, he worked his butt off.

There’s a lesson there, but I’ve lost my concentration and you’ll have to help me with it. Does it have to do with room at the top for advancement from within a company?

I guess maybe it does.

See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.

1 thought on “A Life Well Spent

  1. As a relative of Harry's, I had the privilege of living near him for most of my life. As I reflect here, some two and a half years later on the man I knew so well, I cannot help but still be amazed at the humility and compassion he showed on a daily basis. Had I never read an article about his accomplishments, I never would have known. The man spoke more about his love of polishing rocks than he did of reflective tape and his long list of achievements. He taught me loyalty to your company, to what you love, and to treat everyone with respect, from the maid to the CEO. That was the kind of man he was, and he is sorely missed today. His truly, was a life well lived.

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