The business of war

They’ve seen it all before.

Today’s terrorism war jitters are, in some ways, a repeat of history for Columbus area business founders who successfully made it through the second World War. Their memories of WWII are nearly overshadowed by the preceding Depression, and the nation’s business climate and federal support made for a very different pre-war picture than we faced late last year.

The country was on the upswing after the Depression just before the war. After the war, the three, all members of Junior Achievement of Central Ohio’s Business Hall of Fame, watched the country move into a recession.

Stick to it, they’d tell today’s business executives. Everything will turn out fine in the end.

Fighting chances

Florence Zacks Melton, co-founder of R.G. Barry Corp., was a housewife with two small children before the war began. She and her husband had moved to Columbus in 1941, didn’t have a car, had just closed a failing business and lived on Sheridan Avenue trying to pay off all the people to whom they owed money so they wouldn’t end up in bankruptcy.

“As far as making a comparison (to today’s war), you couldn’t make much of a comparison because it was a quiet time,” Melton says. “It was a time when everybody was focused on family, and there wasn’t the thrust to get rich in those days. We lived more modestly and expected life to bring in a decent living. We all aspired to do better, naturally. It was the American way to think.

“Of course when the war broke out, that was a whole different story. The country unified and produced, and everybody worked.”

That is, if they weren’t called away from their jobs into service.

Ret. Maj. Gen. Ray Mason Jr., founder of Columbus Truck and Equipment Co., hadn’t even received his diploma from The Ohio State University before he was called into duty to use the officer training he was receiving. He ended up in the Army’s Fourth Armored Division during the war and continued military service until his retirement in 1976.

Back home, his father, a pioneer in the motor trucking business, had founded commercial Motor Freight and struggled with finding rubber to repair tires.

“When the war got cranked up, why, the people couldn’t get new trucks or new automobiles and had to fix the old ones,” he remembers.

“Once in a while, one of the letters from my wife would mention that they didn’t or couldn’t go here, there or other places because they didn’t have enough gasoline or were trying to hang onto the tires. People in this country ate well and had clothing, had shoes and had transportation and were much better off than people in Europe were,” he says, noting the homeland never really got 100 percent into the war and was never forced to make the sacrifices other countries did.

American businesses, however, did suffer from the shortage of skilled workers, who had been called into service.

We lost a lot of employees, and it was hard to get replacements, too,” says John F. Schoedinger, retired president of Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service. “Half of them weren’t competent, but we had to take what we could get. I used to say if somebody walked by the front door that was warm, we’d go out and grab them by the arm. It was really hard to get qualified help. We just had to work double time.”

The economy, nonetheless, picked up, he remembers. During the Depression, businesses had done a lot of work for no money to help people out. During the war, he says, they had no problems with collections.

When Mason returned from the war, he founded his own business in 1949, not realizing the country was on the verge of a recession. If he had known, he says, he might not have started the business, but it worked out fine.

“Most things work out to our benefit if we just stay with it,” Mason says, “just keep punching.”

Stick to the battle plan

Their experiences make these war-seasoned entrepreneurs more cautious in light of today’s war and economy.

“I’m very concerned about the economy like everybody is,” Schoedinger says, “and I’m trying to tell the younger ones not to be so elaborate and extravagant and try to cut down on their expenses personally and in the business. Sometimes we get carried away with expanding, I think, at the wrong time, which I think is right now.

The Depression makes an impression on you. Of course, they don’t want to hear about that.”

As a housewife, Melton says, the stock market and economic situation never really entered her psyche. Now she looks at the stock market exchange listings every day and has firm opinions on what could change the economy.

“The only advice I can give is if we were not structured on the quarterly report and we would have investors who were willing to work with forward-looking merchants and forward-looking businesses that were creative and had a longer range of reporting, it would make some sense for anybody to go into business,” she says.

“What’s lacking today,” she surmises, “is the understanding that profit in business is a two-way street, that you have to be willing to invest not just in the possibility of a quick buck. You have to have a long-range and clear vision and patience.”

Mason says the way to get through a war or economic recession is to get back to basics.

“I think it’s pretty simple. Most business guys, if they’re on the ball and have any good business sense at all, you just buckle down and look for any efficiency, any improvement you can without losing sight of the fact of taking care of the customer. They’ll come back,” he says matter-of-factly. “We all have that lesson large and small to keep learning and keep doing it.” How to reach: Florence Zacks Melton, R.G. Barry Corp., 864-6400; Ret. Maj. Gen. Ray Mason Jr., Columbus Truck and Equipment Co., 252-3111; John F. Schoedinger, Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service, 224-6105

Joan Slattery Wall ([email protected]) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.