Block, Joseph Leopold

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Block, Joseph Leopold

(b. 6 October 1902 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 17 November 1992 in Chicago, Illinois), industrialist and civic leader who presided over the postwar expansion of Chicago’s Inland Steel Company.

Block was the oldest of four children born to Leopold E. Block and Cora Bloom. His grandfather and namesake, a prosperous Cincinnati scrapiron dealer, had founded Inland Steel in Chicago in 1893 and ran it as a family business, and Block’s father, uncles, and cousins were part of its growth and prosperity. Block’s father moved to Chicago in 1897 when the family acquired the East Chicago Iron and Forge Company. Renamed Inland Iron and Forge and managed by Block’s father, the company introduced the use of angles rolled from a web of rails, which produced a lighter, tougher material. The manufacture of fashionable iron beds increased Inland’s sales over 75 percent. In 1900 the Blocks sold Inland Iron and Forge and contracted a million-dollar package to establish an open-hearth steel-making plant, the Indiana Harbor Works in East Chicago, Indiana. With profits from Inland Steel and the Indiana Harbor Works, the Blocks purchased coal and iron mines, barges, and Chicago real estate.

Block grew up in Chicago and like his brother and cousins, attended the Harvard School for Boys. He left Chicago for Cornell University in 1920, intending to pursue a career in journalism. He wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun and earned an editorial position as an underclassman. When he announced to his father that he planned to marry, Leopold Block insisted that young Joe leave Cornell at the end of his second year and join the family business. Block began as a trainee at the Indiana Harbor Works in the summer of 1922. On 19 January 1924 Block married Lucille Eichen-green; they had two children.

Inland grew dramatically due to the demand for rolled steel during World War I. In the early 1920s, Americans directed much of their consumer budgets toward automobiles and appliances. Agriculture and transportation created even larger markets for steel. Block started at Inland Steel Company in 1922, moved to sales in 1923, became assistant vice president in 1927, and vice president of sales and director in 1929, effective in 1930. A lively, wiry, highly principled salesman, Block believed in and instructed his salesmen in “face-to-face” selling. Inland’s customers were well known to management, and Block built customer loyalty by selling Inland’s innovations in steel manufacture through district offices that could respond quickly to customers’ demands. In 1930 Block had become a member of Inland Steel Company’s board of directors, and in 1936 he was named vice president in charge of sales. Because the company had anticipated the growth of industry and agriculture in the Midwest, had provided a high level of service as well as generous employee benefits and promotion opportunities, and had made sound investments, it weathered the Great Depression.

In 1941 Block took a leave of absence from Inland and left Chicago for Washington, D.C., to serve as a “dollar-a-year” consultant to the War Production Board. Responding to President Franklin Roosevelt’s call for a massive buildup of military supplies, Block coordinated the increase of national steel plate production from 700,000 to 1.3 million tons per month and organized its efficient distribution. Proud of his work in the war effort, Block kept his annual dollar paychecks framed in his Chicago office.

In 1945 Block returned to Chicago. He used his position as head of sales at Inland Steel to maneuver the company into a position of major importance in national industry. Responding to postwar consumer, industrial, and agricultural demands, Block supported renewed research and development. At the same time that he moved the company toward superior customer satisfaction, he made explicit that an Inland employee had the “opportunity … to earn his living and rise from the bottom to the top rung of the ladder on merit, irrespective of race, creed, or class.” For Chicago’s varied ethnic communities, Block’s promise meant jobs that offered security, respect, and a realistic potential for promotion. Block guaranteed Inland’s AA bond rating by continually improving the company’s existing mills, production technology, transportation, and resources.

In 1952 Block became executive vice president and chair of Inland’s finance committee, and in 1953 he became Inland’s eighth president. Block led two major expansion programs. He approved Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s design for a nineteen-story steel and glass office building in downtown Chicago. Always a Chicago booster, Block resisted the corporate exodus to the suburbs. In 1956 he assumed the position of chief executive officer at Inland. In 1957 he headed the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry and for two years, 1957–1959, he led the Chicago Community Fund, which supported local charities. Block had been a director of the Jewish Federation since 1931, and through Inland, he supported local community building projects, including donating land for the Joseph L. Block Junior High School and an adjacent housing development. He headed the Crusade for Mercy from 1965 to 1967. As president, Block expanded the Inland fleet to seven ships, including the two largest ore carriers on the Great Lakes. He opened additional iron mines in Ontario, Canada, built automated slabbing and cold rolling steel mills, and upgraded the production of high-quality, flat-rolled steel. With an investment of $360 million, Block authorized the construction of an enormous facility at Indiana Harbor on a 436-acre landfill. Production at Inland increased from 5.2 million tons in 1952 to 6.5 million in 1959.

In 1959 Block, promoted to chairman of the board, represented steel industry producers during a major strike. His position—that labor, management, and government would benefit mutually and resist foreign competition if they would balance their interests and responsibility to their constituents with mutual fair dealing—was a reflection of his personal code of ethics. The early 1960s saw a period of instability, foreign competition, and intense labor demands. The steel industry decided to institute price increases. Block, called a renegade, refused to participate. Subpoenaed by Senator Estes Kefauver, Block refused to provide production cost data unless every other industry was called to the same task.

Under Block’s leadership, Inland invested more than $1.3 billion in growth. Block was committed to promoting from within and supporting policies that moved women and minorities into significant positions within the company. The “Ten Goals” he wrote in 1953, emphasizing social responsibility and integrity, governed all of Block’s dealings both within and outside the company. In 1962 Block led a second expansion and modernization program, building a hot strip mill that could take nine-inch slabs of steel and roll them into strips of metal one-quarter-inch thick and one-quarter-mile long, a computer-controlled facility that covered nearly a half mile. The nation’s first basic oxygen steelmaking complex opened in 1965. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, Block served Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon on the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor-Management Policy. In November 1967 Block retired as CEO of Inland Steel but remained active on the board as a director and as chair of the executive committee until 1971. Early in 1992 he agreed to serve as the honorary chair of Inland’s 100th anniversary celebration. At the age of ninety he died of congestive heart failure at Northwestern University Hospital. He is entombed at Rosehill Cemetery and Mausoleum in Chicago.

Block, a third-generation principal of his family’s steel business, led Inland Steel during periods of unprecedented growth and prosperity. A lifelong admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he attempted to imbue a powerful industry with ethical principles that reflected his family and personal integrity.

Information on Block’s career is in the Inland Steel collection (CPA #12) of the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University, North Library. Corporate publications, Jack Morris’s Inland Steel at 100 (1993), and The Story of Inland Steel Company (1989), outline Block’s contributions to Inland’s growth and provide a history of the family’s early years in the steel industry in Illinois and Indiana. Overviews of Block’s personal and corporate life are available in Bruce Seely, ed., Encyclopedia of American Business History and Biography: The Iron and Steel Industries in the 20th Century (1994), and in Charles Moritz, ed., Current Biography Yearbook (1961). An interview with Block, “Labor Prices Go up Faster than Steel Prices,” supplements an article on the steel industry, “How Steel Will Change America,” U.S. News and World Report (7 June 1957). Block’s speeches on a number of topics are published in Vital Speeches of the Day (15 Sept. 1962 and 1 Feb. 1963). Time (3 Nov. 1967) and Newsweek (6 Nov. 1967) cover his contributions at the time of his retirement. A discussion of Block’s influence on industry ethics is in “High Ethical Standards and an Operating Background” in Iron Age New Steel (August 1995). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune (both 18 Nov. 1992).

Wendy Hall Maloney