Hall of Fame Inaugural Class

Elbert Gary

 

Most executives at the helm of U.S. Steel Corp. during the 20th Century were honored by having one of the company’s ore boats named after them. Judge Elbert Henry Gary, did them one better. U.S. Steel’s longest-serving chief executive officer had several U.S. communities named after him, including Gary, Ind., and Gary-New Duluth, a suburb of Duluth, Minn.

Gary was born in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., in October 1846. Gary graduated at the top of his class at Union College of Law in 1868, which later became Northwestern University Law School, and he practiced law in Chicago through much of the 1870s and 1880s. For much of that time, Gary was a corporate attorney for a number of the railroads based in Chicago, and he was president of the Chicago Bar Association in 1894. From 1884 to 1892, he served as a DuPage County Judge, a position that resulted in his being called “Judge Gary” for the rest of his life.

Gary’s association with the iron and steel industry began in the late 1890s when he was named president of Federal Steel Corp., a Chicago-based manufacturer of barbed wire and other long products. Federal Steel was one of more than a dozen U.S. steel companies that J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller merged in 1901 to form U.S. Steel, the nation’s first billion-dollar corporation.

At the age of 54, Judge Gary moved from Wheaton to New York as the first president of U.S. Steel. A friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded the martyred William McKinley as U.S. President that same year, Gary was chosen for the U.S. Steel presidency because of his ability to direct the work of underlings who managed one of the most complex business ventures in North America.

By 1903, U.S. Steel had established the model of the integrated steel behemoth, operating mills from Chicago all the way east to the Monongahela Valley; mining iron ore in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, and quarrying limestone in Michigan; processing coking coal in Pennsylvania; running railroads in Minnesota, Illinois and Pennsylvania; and operating a huge fleet of ore boats on the Great Lakes.

Roosevelt, who quickly made his reputation as a “trustbuster,” found accommodation with his friend. In 1904, Gary proposed cooperating with the federal government to avoid an antitrust action. Gary offered to open U.S. Steel’s books to the federal government; if the government found evidence that the company was acting in an anti-competitive manner, it would warn the company to change the way it was doing things. U.S. Steel would then have the chance to respond and address the government’s objections. Roosevelt accepted the proposal and directed his antitrust wrath at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. empire instead.

In 1906 and 1907, Gary presided over the construction of a greenfield steel mill complex and community to house workers on the south shore of Lake Michigan just east of Chicago. The board of U.S. Steel named the Indiana community Gary in the chairman’s honor. In 1908 and 1909, Gary hosted a series of dinners that brought together steel executives from across the industry and laid the groundwork for establishment of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI). Gary agreed to serve as the institute’s first president.

The U.S. Justice Department, under President William Howard Taft in 1911 and his successor, Woodrow Wilson, attempted to break up U.S. Steel between 1911 and 1916. But Gary’s leadership and U.S. Steel’s strong response to U.S. defense needs during World War I turned public sentiment in the company’s favor. In 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.S. Steel was not in violation of U.S. antitrust legislation.

“Elbert Henry Gary is the head of a corporate empire greater in income, resources and area than the average European nation,” B.C. Forbes, the financial journalist and founder of Forbes magazine, wrote in 1917. “Next to the presidency of the United States, the biggest job in America is the chairmanship of the United States Steel Corporation.”

Gary’s calm demeanor and strong sense of moral duty led to the creation of a code of business ethics and conduct that U.S. Steel adheres to this day. He was a noted philanthropist, and his gift over the years of more than 40,000 books formed the nucleus of Northwestern University Law Library. In July 1926, Time Magazine put the Illinois judge on its cover to salute Gary’s 25 years at the helm of America’s most prominent corporation. Gary was still working the following year when he died in New York at the age of 81.

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