Wilson, Joseph Chamberlain

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WILSON, Joseph Chamberlain

(b. 13 December 1909 in Rochester, New York; d. 22 November 1971 in New York City), business executive who in the 1960s transformed the tiny Haloid Company into the Xerox Corporation, which changed the American office environment forever.

The son of Joseph R. Wilson and Katherine M. Upton, Wilson grew up to become a third-generation president of the Haloid Company. His grandfather, Joseph C. Wilson, founded the corporation in 1906, and his father served as its president from 1938 to 1945. So named because of the halogen salts used in photography, Haloid produced paper used for making photographic copies of documents, then an expensive, marginal process.

After attending local public schools, Wilson enrolled at the University of Rochester, from which he graduated in 1931. He went on to Harvard University, where he received an M.B.A. in 1933. Two years later he married Marie B. Curran, with whom he had six children. Training for leadership, he started at the bottom rung of Haloid, working his way through a succession of positions (1933–1936) before becoming secretary and, in 1938, secretary-treasurer.

By the time Wilson became president of Haloid in 1946, company executives had become aware of a promising new process. Developed in the 1930s and 1940s by Chester Carlson, electrography represented a vast improvement over copying processes then in use. In 1947 Wilson purchased rights to the process, which he renamed "xerography," from Greek words meaning "dry writing." During the 1950s Haloid invested heavily in xerography, which paid off with the success of the Copyflo 11 machine, introduced in 1955. Three years later the company changed its name to Haloid Xerox, and in 1959 Wilson became chairman as well as president.

Yet another name change occurred in 1960, as Haloid Xerox became the Xerox Corporation and introduced the Xerox 914 copier. By modern standards it was bulky and slow, producing only seven copies a minute, but for the time the 914 was a revolutionary product, constituting the first automatic, plain-paper copier. Equally important was the method Xerox used for marketing: instead of selling machines, it leased them, and after giving customers a certain base number of copies for free, it charged them for each additional copy. Though the price per copy was somewhat higher than with American Photocopy, or Apeco, the quality of Xerox copies was vastly better. By the end of the decade Apeco, formerly the dominant player in office copiers, was gone from the scene, with Xerox replacing it. In the process the performance of Xerox, as a product and a company, exceeded all expectations.

In 1959, on the eve of the 1960s, due to the changes brought about by the introduction of the 914, Haloid Xerox had profits of $2 million on sales of $32 million. Two years later, profits had jumped 175 percent, to $5.5 million, and revenues had increased by more than 90 percent, to $61 million. This staggering performance was accompanied by an equally impressive climb in the value of common shares, from four to thirty-four. Xerox introduced the 813, a desktop version of the 914, in 1961 and in 1962 undertook its first significant foreign joint venture, combining forces with Fuji Photo Film of Japan—then a small company—to form Fuji Xerox Company. The mid-1960s saw more expansion, in the form of added product lines, corporate acquisitions, and an increased foreign presence.

Xerox acquired Multi-Systems and Electro-Optical Systems in 1963, and in 1965 took over Basic Systems (re-named Xerox Learning Systems) and American Education Publications (renamed Xerox Education Publications), publisher of the Weekly Reader and other educational periodicals. Still more acquisitions followed: Professional Library Service and Learning Materials Inc. (both 1966); R. R. Bowker Company, owner of Books in Print, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal, and Cheshire, Inc. (both 1967); and Ginn and Company (1968). With the purchase of marketing rights to Central and South America from the Rank Organization in 1964, Xerox spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, while the 1965 opening of a Rank Xerox plant—Haloid had formed a joint venture with the Rank Organization in 1956—in Venray, Holland, expanded the company into Europe.

In 1964 Xerox presented its 2400 model, which could produce 2,400 copies an hour. Such speed in copying was unheard of at the time; in just three years Xerox had produced a copier nearly six times as fast as the 914. The year 1964 also saw the introduction of long-distance xerography, a forerunner of the concept that would become widely used in facsimilie (fax) machines a quarter-century later. These early facsimile machines were large, slow, and expensive, but the Xerox Magnafax Telecopier, which made its debut in 1966, was smaller, faster, and more user-friendly than any other fax machine on the market at the time.

With Wilson at the helm, Xerox grew at a dizzying rate. In some weeks, the company hired more than a hundred production personnel at a time, even as it recruited executives from other leading companies, practically on a daily basis. By 1967 profits were at $97 million, or about 50 percent more than revenues had been just six years earlier; revenues themselves, meanwhile, had skyrocketed to $701 million, more than eleven times their value in 1961. It seemed that the growth of Xerox could never stop, but it did—just as Wilson stepped down from his leadership position. By the late 1960s Wilson was entering his seventh decade and was beginning to look toward retirement and a position on the company board. No doubt he had worked himself to the point of exhaustion during those days of hyperactive growth, and judging by his activities after retirement, he must already have been planning a second career in service to the community. In 1968 he named Peter McColough to succeed him as president and chief executive officer.

In 1969, the same year that Xerox moved its corporate headquarters from Rochester, New York, to Stamford, Connecticut, Wilson and McColough together engineered the acquisition of Scientific Data Systems. The latter was a data-processing company, and the $1 billion that Xerox invested in its acquisition indicates the company's degree of interest in the emergent computer industry. Scientific Data Systems, however, proved to be a failure, and by 1975 it had ceased to exist. In the meantime Xerox formed Xerox Computer Services in 1970. A number of important innovations arose from the computer services company, including what may have been the world's first personal computer, but Xerox corporate leadership failed to take notice of it. At the same time, competition from IBM and such Japanese companies as Canon and Ricoh conspired to remove Xerox from its position of leadership. The company suffered throughout the 1970s and 1980s and only began to bounce back in the late 1980s—much too late to acquire a substantial portion of the home-computing market it had helped create.

By then Wilson, who had only a few years to enjoy his retirement, was long dead. After stepping down in 1968 he took a position on the company's board of trustees and served as honorary chairman. He then turned his attention to public service, which was in keeping with a statement he once made regarding the role of a leading corporation such as Xerox: "Technological companies are at the center of social change and therefore have a responsibility. Those in the inner city have derived little benefit from technology and no profit from it." This view of public service contrasts with the usual image of the hard-driving corporate executive, but Wilson not only expressed such ideas but also lived them. He made Xerox the first company in America to give workers as much as a year's paid leave to devote themselves to worthy causes. When a stockbroker complained about his generosity with corporate funds, Wilson said, "You can sell your stock or try to throw us out, but we are not going to change." He also personally granted the University of Rochester 90,000 Xerox shares in an irrevocable trust in 1965 and in 1967 gave another 50,000 shares to his alma mater.

Wilson served as trustee for the Alfred Sloan Foundation, the Sidney Hillman Health Center, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the George Eastman House, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Rochester Savings Bank. He also sat on the boards of several corporations, most of them based in Rochester. In addition, he served, in 1971, as chairman of both President Richard M. Nixon's Committee on Health Education and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller's Steering Committee on Social Problems. While lunching with Rockefeller, Wilson suffered a heart attack and died.

As president of Xerox in the 1960s, Wilson had the rare opportunity to oversee a company at the height of its powers, when growth occurred at a massive rate and seemingly everything Xerox touched turned to gold. Nor was his leadership merely a passive honor bestowed on a figurehead. More than any other figure in the company—and there were several important leaders, such as research director John H. Dessauer, who discovered Carlson's process—Wilson was responsible for the exponential growth of Xerox in the 1960s. In addition to his sage corporate leadership, however, he did something perhaps even more remarkable: he proved that a corporation and its president can be not only great but also good.

There are no biographies of Wilson, but information on his life and impact can be garnered from works by other leading figures at Xerox: John H. Dessauer, My Years with Xerox (1971), and David T. Kearns and David Nadler, Prophets in the Dark: How Xerox Reinvented Itself and Beat Back the Japanese (1992). Also useful are these corporate histories: Gary Jacobson, Xerox, American Samurai (1986), and Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander, Fumbling the Future: How Xerox Invented, Then Ignored, the First Personal Computer (1988). An obituary is in the New York Times (23 Nov. 1971).

Judson Knight

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