Former Northern Engraving exec talks about business, ethics
By STEVE CAHALAN of the La Crosse Tribune
Charles Gelatt learned a lot about business from his father, and later learned many lessons as president of Northern Engraving Corp., the retired businessman said Tuesday at Viterbo University.
Gelatt opened the university's 2004-05 Brown Bag lunchtime discussion series. The series features local business owners discussing the values that go into operating a business for the long term and the benefits that accrue to the community and future generations.
In 1919, his father, Philo Gelatt, became president of Northern Engraving, which had been founded in 1908. Philo Gelatt was chairman of the board when he died in 1944. Charles Gelatt took charge of the company in 1941 when he was 23 and his father was ill, and retired in 1986. Today, the company is headed by his son, Philip Gelatt.
Northern Engraving makes automotive trim and nameplates that go on such things as appliances.
"He taught me a lot about business," Charles Gelatt said of his father. "We ate lunch together most days when he was in town.
"And he taught business at lunch," Gelatt said. "What was going on in the business. What troubles he might have, what people he had to deal with, how he dealt with them. And he was a firm boss."
During World War II, the company landed a contract to make cartridge cases for the military, largely through Charles Gelatt's efforts. "That cartridge case business was really my introduction to management, my introduction to fighting through the problems and getting something going that you don't know how to do," he said.
"You do it by persistence and imagination," Gelatt continued. "And in my case as a young man, with the help of fellows that my father had trained to do the same kinds of things for him in the Depression."
Gelatt recalled the first time he fired someone, and said he was unable to sleep the night before. But the fired employee started his own business.
"And he was better off," Gelatt said.
"In most instances when I fired somebody, they were better off after I fired them than when they were working for me, because they didn't fit, or in some cases they were lagging because they weren't interested," he said.
Gelatt also said ethics in business have "deteriorated greatly since my day," as some businesses don't live up to commitments or don't want to make commitments.
Asked about fears about globalization of the world economy, Gelatt said his father was a "strict isolationist" who felt the United States had everything it needed and that Americans could do business better than anyone. "We can't do that, because we've got jet airplanes and rockets," he said of isolationism.
"Competition is always with us in one form or another," Gelatt said.
Steve Cahalan can be reached at (608) 791-8229 or email@example.com.
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