With remarkable sales skills and a keen ability to fix ailing companies, John Willys (1873-1935) was instrumental in the development of the budding automotive industry. After his death, the Willys-Overland company pioneered the manufacture and use of Jeeps in World War II, in essence creating the off-road (sport-utility vehicle) market.
John Willys saw his first automobile in downtown Cleveland in 1899 and quickly realized the vehicle's future importance. Within a decade, Willys had purchased several automobile manufacturing companies and began production from his base in Toledo, Ohio. In the pre-World War I days of the automobile industry, Willys ranked second to Ford in output and remained a leader until the Great Depression. His company faltered during the nationwide financial crisis and Willys served as a diplomat after selling his stock in the company. He returned to the Willys-Over-land in the early 1930s, but could not restore the company to its former greatness.
A Born Salesman
John North Willys was born in the small town of Canandaigua, New York on October 25, 1873. His father, David Smith Willys, worked as a brick and tile maker. The younger Willys was a natural salesman. He liked to wheel and deal with his friends and always searched out business deals. At the age of 15, he convinced his parents to let him buy half an interest in a nearby laundry with a friend. At first, they were hesitant, but the boy was relentless in his desire. When his parents finally granted him permission, Willys and a friend bought the laundry in Seneca Falls, New York, which was 30 miles away. Moving away from home and working hard was quite a strain for Willys. The boys were successful, however. After a year, they sold the laundry with a net profit of $100 dollars each.
Returning home, Willys intended to work his way through college and become a lawyer. He got a job in a local law firm and set out on a career in law. The dream ended, though when Willys' father unexpectedly died. He was forced to leave college and support himself and his mother, Lydia North. Only 18 years old, Willys used the profits from the laundry to buy a sample bicycle. A bicycle craze was sweeping the nation and Willys saw an opportunity.
Soon, the enterprising Willys, known as "J.N." to his friends, became the local sales agent for several bicycle manufacturers. Not one to work for others when opportunity arose, Willys opened a store to sell bikes with a repair shop in the back. Willys' store grew fast and he opened a larger one on Main Street. Willys' next career move occurred in 1896. He became a traveling salesman for the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company of Boston. Two years later, Willys bought the Elmira Arms Company, a sporting goods business in Elmira, New York that had gone bankrupt. He focused the company on selling bicycles and business boomed. Willys hired other sales agents to comb the state selling bikes. While business thrived, Willys took a personal step and married Isabel Van Wie in 1897. They later had one daughter.
By 1900, at the age of 27, Willys had built the business up to in $500,000 in sales. His company sold the entire output of a bicycle factory. A successful entrepreneur, Willys saw his first automobile in 1899 on a visit to Cleveland. As the story goes, he immediately realized the impact the automobile would have on the bicycle business and society in general.
Birth of the Automobile Industry
Witnessing the early auto from a skyscraper in Cleveland was a life-changing event for Willys. At the time, he said, "I made up my mind that I would get into this new field at the first moment possible." Using his experiences in the bicycle business as a guide, Willys first became an agent for auto manufacturers. Within two years, he began selling Pierce-Arrow and Rambler automobiles on a small scale. Willys bought a car from Pierce for $900 to use as a sample and give demonstrations.
Initially, selling automobiles was no easy task. While people crowded around to get a glimpse of the new contraption, few had the daring (or money) to purchase one. In 1900, Willys sold only two automobiles. The next year he doubled his production to four. Gradually, Willys overcame people's hesitations and sold 20 vehicles in 1903. As he became a better salesman and advocate of automobiles, Willys encountered another problem: he could sell cars faster than his distributors could make them. When he hit this roadblock, Willys decided the answer was to contract for the entire production of a factory and sell cars wholesale.
In 1906, Willys organized the American Motor Car Sales Company of Elmira. His company sold automobiles produced by the American and Overland Companies in Indianapolis. Overland's entire output in 1906 numbered 47 cars. A year later, Willys ordered 500 Overland cars. A financial panic that year caused a severe hardship for the business. Not only was the company unable to produce the required number of vehicles, it looked like it would go bankrupt. Hearing about the problems at Overland, Willys went to Indianapolis to investigate. He had already pre-paid $10,000 on his contract with the company. When he arrived, it was worse than expected. Overland owed its creditors more than $80,000. It had no money in its treasury and teetered on the brink of collapse.
A Million Dollar Business
With Overland on the verge of destruction, Willys had to act fast. He had faith in his belief that automobiles were the wave of the future, but he had to raise money to back that idea. Willys had built a good reputation in business circles and was widely praised for his eloquence and sincerity. These characteristics helped him during the Overland financial crisis.
Willys took complete control of the company, acting as its president, treasurer, general manager, and sales manager. He raised $3,500 in cash and convinced Overland's creditors to accept it in return for the $80,000 the company owed. Not only did he work out advantageous deals with his creditors, Willys also used his sales skills to raise additional capital—enough to keep the company running.
By January 1908, the reorganization of Overland was complete under Willys' full control. It became known as the Willys-Overland Company. By September, the company produced 465 cars that were sold for $1,200 each. The net worth of Willys-Overland jumped to $58,000. Willys did not sit idly by, however, he charged forward and did not stop until the company was again profitable. Over the next year, under Willys' watchful eye, Willys-Overland made and sold 4,000 automobiles for a total of $5 million. The net profit was over $1 million. In a little over a year, Willys had taken Overland from solvency to million dollar status.
In an effort to expand his burgeoning operations, Willys bought another failing company in 1909, the Pope-Toledo Automobile Company. He moved the Willys-Overland plant into the larger factory in Toledo. The expanded company produced cars at a much quicker rate. Willys also worked out deals with banks in Toledo and New York to finance further acquisitions, such as parts manufacturing facilities.
Consolidation and Success
Willys-Overland's automobile production jumped from 4,000 in 1901 to more than 15,500 in 1910. By 1915, production had reached 141,000. From 1912 to 1918, Willys-Overland ranked second only to the great Ford Motor Company in total output. At mid-decade, the company had a market capitalization of $75 million. It employed 18,000 men in Toledo and 20,000 in factories in Elyria, Ohio; Flint and Pontiac, Michigan; and Buffalo, New York.
Always in direct competition with the hard-driving Henry Ford, Willys claimed his company would challenge the supremacy of the Model T with a more equipped and powerful Overland at a competitive price. Despite Willys' boasting, he could never quite catch Ford.
In 1917, Willys organized the Willys Corporation as a holding company to coordinate his efforts and allow for greater expansion. The move allowed the company to produce 1,000 cars a day that year, although his advanced automobile, the Willys-Knight, equipped with a Knight sleeve-valve engine was an expensive car to build.
In an attempt to diversify and expand his holdings, Willys acquired the Curtis Aeroplane and Motor Corporation in Buffalo. He immediately enlarged the plant. The highlight was a new building that contained 27 acres of floor space. During World War I, Willys-Overland became a major producer of trucks, airplanes and airplane engines. Willys also bought Moline Plow Company, which produced tractors for military use. Next, he bought an interest in the Fisk Rubber Company and the Electric Auto-Lite Company, as well as smaller companies in the United States and Britain. Although he was a successful military contractor during the war, Willys divers holdings were spread thin after the conflict ended.
In an effort to manage his vast empire, Willys moved to New York in 1918. He had always maintained a good relationship with his factory workers. When he left, relations with the plant managers deteriorated. Within a year of Willys' departure, a bloody battle broke out at the plant that had to be stopped by city police and federal court orders.
Hard Times and Rebirth
Willys' companies played a central role in the war effort and the transition back to normal business activity was difficult. The Willys Corporation holding company was overextended due to the rapid expansion efforts. In 1920, Willys-Overland lost $20 million in revenue. The company was forced into receivership, owing $10 million. Its $15 million plant was sold at auction. Willys' creditors forced him to accept Walter P. Chrysler as vice president and general manager of Willys-Overland.
It proved to be a successful collaboration. Chrysler cut costs and began reorganizing the company by selling off many major assets. Willys traveled around the country to inspire dealers. As the company's fortunes improved, Willys announced, "I've shown the boys I'm not dead." He refused to accept defeat and mapped out strategies to extend his credit and get the company on a sound financial footing.
By 1922, Willys regained full control of the business, after Chrysler left to start his own automobile company. Willys-Overland continued its success, but Willys himself became more conservative in his approach. While the company still showed pizzazz, with the introduction of the Whippet, the smallest four-cylinder car on the market, it lagged behind both Ford and Chevrolet in 1928.
In 1929, after hitting record production figures of over 314,000 and net sales of $187 million, Willys left the company, selling his common stock for $25 million. He resigned as president, but retained his position as chairman of the board. Willys told friends that he had achieved everything he could in the automobile industry.
The next year, President Herbert Hoover appointed Willys the first United States ambassador to Poland. Even as a diplomat, Willys could not get away from the business of the company. When the depression hit Willys-Overland, he rushed back to rescue the company. Once again, he took over active control, but the company returned to receiver-ship in 1933. Willys struggled and also fought poor health, but still was named president in 1935.
Willys divorced his wife in 1934 and married Florence Dingler Dolan. He suffered a heart attack the following year. He suffered a stroke several months later and died at his home in New York City on August 26, 1935.
Always a tremendous salesman, Willys was described as optimistic and energetic. He collected art and owned a valuable collection of Old Master paintings. At one time, he owned a 245-foot steam yacht, named the Isabel, after his wife. He also enjoyed golfing and photography. But, what her really loved was work. Doctors had to order his to take vacations and he routinely worked from 7 A.M. until midnight, seven days a week. After his death, Willys' company produced Jeeps for the army during World War II, in essence creating the first off-road (sport-utility) vehicles.
American National Biography, Oxford, 1999.
Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, A supplement, Press Association Compilers, 1918-1935.
Forbes, B.C., Men Who Are Making America, New York, 1917.
Air Force Times, March 15, 1999.
American Heritage, November, 1996.
Sports Afield, April, 1995.
Time, December 7, 1998. □