Frederick V. Geier

frederick geier

Frederick V. Geier

(1893-1981)

In 1932 or '33, shortly before he became president of Cincinnati Milling Machine Co., Fred Geier was sent to Germany by his father, then president, to explore the desirability of establishing an operation there.

Fred was shocked by what he saw, including the foreboding emergence of Naziism. He came back and reported not only that Germany was a dangerous place, but that a serious confrontation in Europe was coming.

Milling Machine became so certain that war was imminent, and so convinced of this country's future needs, that in 1938 Fred launched a program that by the time of Pearl Harbor had doubled the plant, put in a new foundry and built a new office building to handle the increased complexities. In the World War II period, 1942-45, the company produced a new machine tool every 17 minutes, around the clock.

Through friends Fred learned in the late '30's that there was only one plant anywhere that was capable of boring the big naval guns - and it was in Germany. He had the necessary boring equipment built there, managed to get it out through Switzerland and Italy, and installed it in Cincinnati. During the war, the nation's need for its largest guns was met entirely by Cincinnati Milling Machine Company; without this foresight, such guns would not have been available throughout the war.

This same type of vision, of aggressive planning, of concentrated effort, was applied also to the affairs of Cincinnati, and made him one of the powers that shaped the city and its development over a crucial three decades.

For all his strength and determination, he was a gentle man. His son, James A. D. Geier, later a president of the company, said he "never heard a hard word from him," or a word of profanity. Fairly small, soft-spoken, he was stolid but gracious. He moved with assurance, and conducted himself at all times as a gentleman of the 'old school'. His dress reflected this; he was not dapper but neat, meticulous in every detail. "It was a pleasure to watch him buy clothes," Jim reports; he would choose materials with great care and discernment, and had his suits made from the best he could find.

Being dressed 'properly' was part of the code. Howard Morgens, P & G executive, reports that on an outing of Cincinnati's prestigious Commonwealth Club Fred showed up to play golf in a three-button coat and a vest. Son Jim's only comment: "of course."

He never smoked, or drank until later in life when his doctor told him he should have a glass of sherry with his wife before dinner.

He was a classical student, read Latin and Greek with ease. And a lover of words. When by 1970 the expansion of the company's product line and areas of interest made the name 'Milling Machine Co.' too restrictive, it was he who coined the new company name - Milacron.

He had a great ability to speak the English language with total correctness. "He never spoke without talking in a complete sentence," says Jim.

The family roots go back to the 1840's when Philip O. Geier came to the United States from Germany and became a manufacturer of precision wooden tool parts. About the same time George Mueller and Fred Holz, who had formed a firm, Cincinnati Screw & Tap Co., needed a milling machine for tap making. They couldn't afford to buy one, so they made their own - and in so doing, improved the basic design. They soon started producing and selling them.

When Philip Geier died in 1887, his son, 21-year-old Frederick A. Geier, who was to be Frederick V. Geier's father, was running the real estate department of a bank in Kansas City. He came back to Cincinnati, where he had attended school, and took over the wood-working business. However he heard Holz talking enthusiastically about the new milling machine, saw that the family wood-turning business was obsolete in the face of new metal-working technologies, and managed to buyout one of the original investors in Cincinnati Screw & Tap Co. He became its secretary and treasurer.

He soon found himself in disagreement with the other owners. He felt they should drop everything else and make only the milling machines; the others wanted to keep the screw and tap line as well. This led to a schism: the Screw & Tap business was sold to one group; the other formed a new company under the name, Cincinnati Milling Machine Co.

Frederick had a small model made of the milling machine and took it on selling jaunts by train through the Midwest. His competition was mainly in New England; thus he had a transportation advantage. About this time, the two-wheel bicycle was gaining immense popularity, and his machine was well suited for the production of this booming item. The company "took off'.

Soon automobiles came on the scene, and Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. sold Henry Ford his first machine tool. The company cherishes a letter from Frederick to Henry Ford hoping his "new enterprise" will be successful.

By the 1900 to 1910 period, the Cincinnati firm had become a world leading milling machine company.

Seeking a location for the burgeoning enterprise, Frederick's thoughts turned toward Oakley. He had always liked this area - out of ' the bottoms', fresh air, no congestion. He envisioned what today is called an industrial park, a complex of buildings with open landscaping. He bought a large tract, and persuaded five others to acquire adjoining property. Since these plants were located away from the workers' normal living areas, small apartment houses were added. The move was made in stages, starting in 1906 and completed in 1912. The assembly plant erected there was the world's largest milling machine factory.

Frederick V. Geier began working for the company in 1916. Born in Cincinnati September 5, 1893, the first of three children of Frederick A. and Amanda Virginia Mayer Geier, he attended Williams College ("unheard of in those days for a third generation German immigrant," comments James Geier) and graduated in 1916 with a B.A. degree.

Williams had a great impact on him, Jim says. It was there that he acquired his affection for the classics and his facility in Latin and Greek. The Eastern Ivy League college had a broadening effect on the young man from the Midwest. He was an excellent student, was in fact voted the 'most studious' in his class. He was Phi Beta Kappa.

His start at "the Mill", as the company was mostly called, was cut short by service in World War II. The 75 mm. cannon was being produced by Mosler in Hamilton, Ohio; young Fred, straight out of college but with ~ milling background, was sent there to straighten out some production problems, and spent the next two years as a sergeant in the U.S. Army Ordnance.

Returning to the Mill after the war, he worked successively in each of the different shop departments. He then moved into the office to learn operating procedures, advertising, sales, and administration. He became secretary of the company in 1924, and vice-president in 1927.

When in 1934 Frederick A. Geier died there was some disagreement over the succession. It being a family business, the decision was made by a board comprised mostly of family; some of the uncles felt Frederick V. Geier, then 41, was too young. But. within a month the position went to Fred, and he held it for the next twenty-five years.

Fred introduced a basic change, one which transformed the company. His predecessor had felt the Mill should make machine tools only, should 'stick to its lasts'. Fred saw that if things changed the company could be in trouble. As early as 1921 he had been successful in persuading the acquisition of controlling interest in Cincinnati Grinding Co., thus broadening the machine tool base.

The main program of diversification, however, began with the end of World War II. Seeking ways to use the capacity that had been greatly expanded for the war effort, and to broaden the company's field, Fred put together a committee of five company principals to find new areas of endeavor for the Mill. They selected several. One was controls, and this became a major element in the company's business. The Mill helped the Massachusetts Institute of Technology build the 1rst computer-controlled machine tool. It moved into electronic and hydraulic controls - and one of its hydraulic controls was borrowed by Boeing to build :he first B-17. Another was coolants; the development of Cimcool, a superior cutting fluid, enabled the company to build business in the field of special chemicals for industry. "The venture into chemicals. . . helped open the door to the world of plastics and plastics processing machinery," reports a company history, Cincinnati Milacron, Finding Better Ways. Reinforced plastics, to make "dozens of products, from boats to furniture," assumed major importance.

In fact, the Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. "became an entirely different kind of company," according to this historical account.

Fred desired to finance this diversification not by acquisition but by using the company's own resources where possible, and "sticking to businesses that were logically related;" it did not wish to become "a collection of unrelated parts," according to Finding Better Ways. To finance the endeavor, the stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Expansion reached overseas as well. When young Fred returned from Germany in the early '30's with a negative report, the move abroad was not totally discouraged: the company did build a plant in England. Under Fred's presidency, however, the foreign operation expanded greatly. Plants were built in France and (finally, in 1966) in Germany. With the establishment of the European Common Market in 1957, a European marketing headquarters was established in Brussels, followed by direct sales offices in Italy, Great Britain, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. Jim recalls that "people from abroad were always coming to the house."

An interest in his people was always a strong characteristic of Fred Geier. At the bottom of the Great Depression of the '30's, Fred would come home and report dejectedly, there were no orders. But he was determined to keep the cadre together, as James puts it. The company had financial reserves, and kept its employees on the payroll, even when there was little or no mill activity. During the Depression they were kept busy building two lodges, a baseball diamond (the first lighted ball park in the area, ahead of the Cincinnati Reds), tennis courts and other recreational facilities at the Oakley plant site. When sales fell to a fifth of the pre-depression peak, employment did drop to about a third of what it had been. In 1931 Fred told the stockholders that resisting as much as possible the discharge of workers "undoubtedly contributed considerably to our loss figure." But, he said, "management, from a humane standpoint, was unwilling to contribute further to the serious unemployment."

Under Fred the Milling Machine Co. became a leader in the provision of medical care for employees. At each plant there was a well-equipped medical department, with its own doctors, to take care of the personnel. This was under the direction of Fred's brother, Dr. Otto Geier, known as "a pioneer in industrial medicine."

Bonnie Chance, one of the company secretaries for years, tells how Fred would walk through the building and "know everybody by name. Everybody loved him." Her father worked in the plant, and told her it was true there, too. The company never had a union; a major unionizing effort in 1920 fizzled and was never repeated.

"He regarded his people as members of a family," Jim reports. And Cyrus Baxter, an architect and close confidante who worked with Geier on many building projects, recalls Christmas time. " 'There'll always be Christmas at the Mill,' was a standard often-heard quote," he says, "with Christmas tree and all." The occasion was brightened by the bonuses distributed at that time; but, he says, aside from that there was a "wonderful festival spirit created then."

Fred wanted no walls separating him from his people. He insisted that his office door be kept open at all times, so anyone passing by could see him in there working.

He had a little pad with his name printed on it, and if anyone got a promotion he would write a three-or-four sentence personal note of congratulations. "He never forgot anybody," Jim says.

But, says architect Baxter, "people at the plant were not comfortable with him." He was "very critical." If he saw something wrong, "he'd let you know - right away." He had high standards, Baxter says, and "if you didn't get there, he'd let you know."

He "was not dictatorial in that you were aware of it," Baxter says. He would always consult, give consideration to other's thoughts. But he had his own ideas, and was "doggone good" at getting them accepted.

However James Geier reports that his management technique often was to stand back and encourage others to do the job. He would back his men. He'd let them make mistakes, Jim says, if he thought it would teach them something. "If you don't let them make decisions, make mistakes, they'll never grow up," Fred would say. He might tell them, "I think you're wrong - but go ahead." He was always very fair, Jim adds.

Baxter recalls that one of Fred's favorite expressions was, "Supposing that we tried this. . ." This often led to the introduction of a new idea. He had inherited from his predecessors the philosophy of always searching for 'the better way'; he resisted the idea that there's no reason to change, rather was constantly searching for something better to change to. Or, says Baxter, the "supposing that"opening might be a simple checking of all contingencies. "He was very thorough; thoroughness he had."

His interest in people extended beyond the company. Fred was a great booster of the Boy Scouts. He built an overnight cabin for them on property near the factory; 'mini -Jubilees' were held there. "He and mother took great pride in this," Jim says.

One of Fred's contributions was the development of a very large training operation. It was primarily for Mill employees and their sons and daughters, but open to customers and others. This developed into a world-famous apprentice school, which, according to Jim, gave 500,000 man hours of training each year.

As the Company moved into new technologies, Fred himself went to the training school, even when he was in his seventies; "he wanted to stay on top of the changing technology," Jim says.

In view of his being Chief Executive of one of Cincinnati's leading companies, and even more in view of his own character, it was inevitable that Frederick V. Geier should playa major role in the progress and development of Cincinnati.

An early involvement was in the mid 1920's when the City sought to shake off the grip of a corrupt political machine. He was a backer of the reform movement that resulted in the City Charter and a new City Manager form of government - although he didn't approve of the later development of the Charter Party.

He played a leading role in the improved fortunes of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. Ralph Dury, director of the Museum, Ralph's wife, Laura, and the Geiers were longtime friends. Dury was struggling to keep the operation going in the basement of the old Ohio Mechanics' Institute building, with completely inadequate facilities. Fred was determined there should be a better lot for the Museum. He persuaded a handful of others to join him in providing funds for a new building, he himself putting up $200,000. A site on Gilbert Avenue was selected largely because the street car line passed by there, and a fine structure erected which served the museum well for the next three decades or so.

He was chairman of the Museum's Board from 1957 to 1963, and was "the driving force behind a period of growth here that is unparalleled," according to DeVere Burt, the Museum director in subsequent years.

As World War II was approaching its end, there was concern over jobs for the returning servicemen. A Committee for Economic Development was created by President Roosevelt, made up largely of people from the Business Council, an association of the nation's leading corporate citizens. R.K. ("Kirk") Brodie, a top P & G executive, was selected to be chairman for Southwestern Ohio.

Kirk asked Fred to have lunch with him. "No matter what he asked me to do I would have done it," Fred told George Stimson in a 1972 taped interview. Kirk asked Fred to take the leadership role for the city of Cincinnati - to contact business people and ask them to undertake the job of developing new products and new programs, to increase their business and so create jobs.

Mulling over his approach to this task, Fred decided he would have to do something dramatic. If one business man simply talked to another, he felt, not much would happen.

Fred created a show, with men in the trenches talking to each other about what would happen when they arrived home. He got people from various industries to come and see the dramatic presentation. He covered industry in Cincinnati "pretty well", he said, and it "went home to them." Then he'd follow up after a while to see if they were doing anything.

The National Business Council heard about this and became interested. As a result the show was put on in Chicago for representatives of other cities.

But Fred saw a weakness in all of this: it involved business only; great expenditures were made by the City, the schools, parks and others in government; they were left out entirely.

He called on R.R. Deupree, dean of P & G executives, and spent the afternoon sitting on the porch with him. Deupree agreed that a concrete program should be developed, aimed at government activities. Asked to approach the city and county government officials, Deupree declined. He said Stanley Rowe, one of Cincinnati's top citizens, had approached him on the need for a new Master Plan for the city, which would itself create jobs. He suggested the two of them get together.

The result, in short order, was the creation of the Citizen's Planning Association which was largely responsible for the development of Cincinnati's Master Plan of 1945 and, under its new name of Citizen's Development Committee, for seeing that in large measure the Plan was carried out. The CDC and its successor organization of business leaders, the Citizens' Business Committee, played and still playa vital role in determining and effectuating the development of Cincinnati.

Fred Geier took a continuing leadership role in CDC and was its president during the Korean War period.

(For a fuller history of the CDC including Geier's vital role in it, see the section "The CDC and the CBC" in these Oral History Foundation papers.)

"Fred was very genuinely interested in the City," says Howard Morgens, former president of Procter & Gamble, and "in the fixing up of downtown."He was in Morgens' opinion, "a hell of a good citizen."

In the 1960's when a new look was being taken at downtown Cincinnati, Fred Geier, Fred Lazarus, Jr., head of Federated Department Stores, and Morgens "got hold of a land planner from Seattle and someone from Los Angeles" to get the planning started, Morgens recalls. The final p1anning contract with the Working Review Committee ended up elsewhere, but it was in these encounters, Howard says, the concept of overhead walkways "began to emerge."

Geier was a member of that Working Review Committee and according to Eugene Ruehlmann, former Mayor and a committee member, he attended meetings very regularly "and listened." He didn't talk very often, but when he did "it was always a very intelligent input he had to make. His analysis of the problem was always clear and good. He took the job seriously, knew what was going on - and that meant a lot of reading. His input was that of a wise counsel."

Fred pursued two of his father's favorite charities - the Children's Home and the Community Chest. When Frederick A. acquired the Oakley property he found himself a neighbor of the Children's Home. He became interested and supportive, and gave them a piece of his land to serve as a park for the institution.

The Community Chest provides a dramatic indication of Fred's effectiveness and his standing in the community. The Chest was occupying rambling quarters with sloping floors in an old building on Ninth street and there was talk, rather vague because of the funds needed, about moving to better quarters. Suddenly the Ohio Life Insurance Co. announced plans to move, and to put their splendid large building on Reading Road on the market. Fred learned of this, and got from them a friendly price of $300,000, but there was a deadline for the decision because of pending offers. Fred called Neil McElroy. They agreed that the Community Chest should have the building, and turned to their telephones. Within 48 hours the money had been raised (with Fred's share a large one), and the Community Chest had a fine new home.

Fred was very much a family man. Shortly after leaving the Army in 1918 he married Arney Massey Devlen of Philadelphia, and they had four children: Mary Alice Turner, Arney Acheson Garber, Frederick V. Geier, Jr., and James A.D. Geier. "He always collected family," Jim says. He recalls Fred's 75th birthday. Ferris wheels, a merry-go-'round, elephants and donkeys to ride - it was a day to remember. "The family gathered from far parts - 75 of them" - and the festivity lasted all one afternoon and well into the evening.

His children "knew he expected something of you although he'd never say it," Jim says. "He had a deep effect on Fred (Jr.) and myself Things were expected of us" - like doing "reasonably well" at school, and going to work after college. "Standards were all around you." The boys always had their tails in good order, and even, Jim alleges, their top hats. Their father expected them always to be dressed correctly.

The young went on many of their parents' vacations. In later years (Fred lived to be 88) one or two of the children would accompany them on their travels, "for safety".

The Geiers did enjoy their travels. Fred "was a good traveler,," would study about a place he was going to visit. They would go to Europe once a year, combining business with pleasure. Wife Arney had cousins in London, and visiting them was a major event. In the winter they went to Arizona; summers they would frequently camp in Nova Scotia - really camp out, Jim says - and fish for trout. "Mother was very good; father was good."

One of their favorites: a friend had a yacht, and in the Fall they would charter it for two weeks and sail around Florida, the Marquesas Keys, or the Bahamas. They enjoyed shelling, and the life of the yachtsman. The family would often join them.

But they enjoyed also their fine home in Indian Hill. "They were very good at being social," Jim says of his parents, "but they never hunted out a strong social life." Their home was handsome with antiques and paintings. "Somehow he was always able to buy these at a reasonable price," Jim says. "He knew prices." Fred "spent a lot of time" studying such things as Georgian furniture. "They just loved their home," and enjoyed being in it.

Trees were a hobby of Fred's; he knew the Latin name of every tree on the place. He would study books on trees and plants, knew where to plant to the best advantage, how to feed. They had a swimming pool, and Fred refused to go the modern way of filters and chlorination. He'd swim every day, with his family; when the pool had been used enough, he'd drain it and fill it up again.

He liked to paint. Creativity found expression also in an extensive model railroad system in the attic, with scenery and dwellings, trees and shrubs, he would himself fashion - "elaborate things you can't imagine," Jim says. Finally it got so complicated he had to have professional help with the wiring and all.

He was musical. He played the banjo, and the piano quite well. The heights were reached, however, when his young presented him with an instrument he had always greatly admired - the bagpipes. Fred taught himself how to play this convoluted instrument, and enormously enjoyed striding across the fields bringing a bit of Scotland to the Indian Hill country side. "He drove my mother crazy," says Jim; his playing was clearly limited to the out-of-doors.

He enjoyed designing automobiles. He didn't like any of the station wagons being built, so he bought an Oldsmobile chassis and took it to a company that made milk trucks and had them build a body to his specifications. They were touring Italy once in this car when a woman flagged them down, thinking it was a bus. Looking it over, she said, "Magnifico!" From then on the wagon was called Lorenzo, in honor of The Mangificent.

His wife was inclined toward hats with feathers, and as cars got lower this became a problem. The answer was simple: Fred took a Chevrolet to a company that custom-built automobiles and had the roof raised two feet. A revealing insight into the man: alertness to a problem, imagination in finding a solution, determination to have it the way he wanted it, action to get it done.

But perhaps his most ingrained hobby, according to Cy Baxter, was architecture. Cy, senior partner in the architectural firm of Baxter, Hodell, Donnelly and Preston, built most of Cincinnati Milling's structures in the United States and England.

Fred, he says, "was really a fussy guy, very persistent, kept driving. He went over every detail of architectural things. . . Sunday was no different, he was a worker. He'd get something on his mind and there was no deviating. He'd drive at it until he got it the way he wanted." This, his persistence, Cy adds, would "aggravate some people." He wanted his machines as well as his plants to be ahead of their time, not only technically but in how they looked. He used Baxter's firm to design them.

When Milling Machine built a new office building and a foundry in England, Baxter made 20 or 22 trips. Geier stayed close to it, "was with me all the time." Fred was strong for natural light; he took delight in working out with Cy ingenious ways of bringing outdoor lighting into the interiors.

When the Geiers were planning to build their home in Indian Hill, Fred spent a couple of years looking at Virginia homes, culling out the features that he thought best. With Walter Rapp as architect, the relationships of all masses were carefully studied, the size of the windows related to the size of the building, even the masses of planting designed to fit the whole. Fred was on top of every detail.

"He should have been an architect," says Baxter.

Fred was "not a guy you could laugh and scratch with," says Howard Morgens. Baxter c~mments that he had a "very subtle" sense of humor. "One had to get to know him before it came out," he says; not a lot of laughter, but a "friendly, soft humor." Hearing the Morgens quote, he agreed; "he was a little too serious for that." He was "a private guy"; he could relax a little, but he was "difficult to have fun with."

He was "a little cool and aloof - but warm hearted," says Baxter. He did not try to make an impression, but was just his natural self.

The family enjoyed doing skits at family gatherings such as birthday parties, Jim recalls; they all had to act, and write material for the occasions. Fred, he says, was good at writing poems or putting together skits.

In 1958 Fred reached the retirement age of 65, and Swan Bergstrom was made president. Fred was chairman of the board until 1963, when he became chairman of the executive committee, until 1975. This completed, as Finding Better Ways summarizes it, "an amazing 60 years of leadership at the Mill- over 50 of them on the board." He was made the Mill's first and only Director Emeritus and "continued to serve the company for several years."

He served a great many companies and institutions in his lifetime.

He was a director of Armco Steel, Procter & Gamble, the Central Trust Co., the Union Central Life Insurance Co., McCurdy Co., and Little Miami Railroad Co.

He was a trustee of the Heritage Foundation in Deerfield, Mass., president (1942-47) of the Hermann Schneider Foundation; president (1946-48) of the CDC, and of the Children's Home; honorary trustee of the Berkshire School, Sheffield, chairman of the board of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History ( 1957 -63), past vice-chairman of the Business Advisory Council, Department of Commerce; director of the Cincinnati Post, president ( 1944-45) of the American Ordnance Association, director of Ohio Mechanics Institute, member of the Economic Cooperation Administration, the Industrial Advisory Committee, the executive committee of the Machine and Allied Products Institute; chairman ( 1943-48) of the Cincinnati Committee for Economic Development, consultant to Foreign Economic Administration in 1945, assistant chief of Cincinnati Ordnance District (1938-40), president of the National Machine Tool Builders Association, president (1943) of the Cincinnatus Association, member Engineering Society, and associate member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1961 he received the Great Living Cincinnatian award from the Chamber of Commerce.

He was one of the founders of the Camargo Club in Indian Hill, and president of the Commercial Club in 1945.

The life that ended January 14, 1981 was long and full, and one that brought great benefit to his company and his community.

(With permission of the author.)