This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.
I will go five hundred miles to investigate anything said to be equal or better than ours,” my father once told me.
“So one day when I was in Chicago,” he continued, “Charlie Foster, of the American Radiator Company, told me that The Fulton Company, of Knoxville, Tenn., had a thermostatic element that would beat ours in efficiency. I went to Knoxville that very night.
“Next day, after looking the Fulton product over, I signed a contract for bellows for traps and valves, guaranteeing to buy a specified minimum of the devices a year. The Fulton Company had a fine product and the Webster Organization had the engineering knowledge to make applications successful, plus an established market and steady sales. The Fulton Company’s “Sylphon” Bellows has been an integral part of Webster thermostatic traps ever since.
“In 1917, when the Fulton people had some financial trouble, I went down to Knoxville prepared to assist them. After a little negotiation, Mr. W. M. Fulton and I were able to buy a controlling interest in the Fulton Company from the bankers who were running it. After that I served as Vice-President and Director on the Board of the Fulton Company. The business relationship continued very pleasantly right up to the time when the concern was sold to the Reynolds Metal Company.”
“The first sale of Sylphon Traps I remember very clearly,” Warren Webster said. “This marked the transition from the carbon post type of trap to the thermostatic traps which are the basis of our business at the present time.
“We had a contract with a company which for the purpose of the story I shall designate as the Nation’s Gas Company. The equipment was half-installed when along came a competitive concern and said they could effect a saving of at least $4,000 a year in fuel over the Webster equipment. Accordingly the Nation’s Gas Company offered to pay us the balance of our contract to release them from going any further.
“So I went out there and saw the consulting engineer—and found out, by the way, that he was indirectly connected with a competitor. Moreover, he didn’t know his business, so I went to the vice-president.
“He said: ‘There are five engineers connected with us. All have approved this change. The architect will also give his sanction provided you are paid for the balance of your apparatus, which we will do.’
“To this I replied: To start with, the building is not completed. It would have to be completed and tests made to get the efficiency of the boiler, steam generation—then the condensation would have to be weighed. That would be a lot of trouble. Now, if there is any plant in the United States in which they have shown an economy over Webster, we could take that plant and make comparisons without any trouble; if we were behind, we would know why.’
“He said, ‘Well, these people will give us a bond.’
“I replied, ‘They can’t do it, because once our apparatus was out they couldn’t make any comparison. The bond would be no good. The bond is only for the purpose of giving the privilege of a lawsuit. Now, we will deposit $10,000 in cash with you. We will invest it in 5% Nation’s Gas Company Bonds and you can keep them for five years, then if we have failed to produce the results we have talked about, you keep the bonds. You won’t have to fight for them. We will give you the money and you give us a receipt.
“I then suggested, ‘Have your engineers meet me at two o’clock today and give me the chance of cross-examining them.’ This he did.
“Knowing he was the deciding factor, I opened the meeting by asking the principal engineer: ‘How do you expect to find out what the economy is or what the efficiency will be in generating steam with this other equipment? You are recommending what you have never done anywhere. Is there a plant nearby where you have already effected the economies you claim?’
“He said, ‘No. But I know.’
” ‘You may have a theory but no practical results to back it,’
I replied. ‘Now, here is a device which you recommend to go in against that device. One weighs less than the other. The diaphragm of this isn’t as large as the diaphragm of that. Do you know how much movement there is from hot to cold in this and how much from hot to cold in that?’
“He replied, ‘I don’t have to know that.’
“I said: ‘Yes, you certainly have to know that. I know it and I will put it down.’ I wrote on a card—1/25 of an inch movement from hot to cold for the one device, and, on the other side of the card, 1/10 of an inch movement for the other device. I gave the card to the vice-president, and said:
“‘There are the results. Now, let your engineer tell you what is on that card—if he knows it. If he hasn’t tested it, he can’t know it, for this is the result of experiments in our laboratory at Camden.’
“He couldn’t answer, so he dodged the question by growling: ‘I didn’t come here to be cross-examined by any boy from Camden.’
“‘You must answer this question,’ I insisted. ‘This company is very fair to us, but you recommend that our apparatus be taken out of here and replaced by another. You must give your reasons.’
He could not answer.
“On the previous day I had told the Vice-President I would have the money wired to me by eleven o’clock, so I now informed him I had received it and turned it over to him in due form—and saved the job. Shortly after they returned the bonds, saying they did not want to hold them for five years.
“That was the first sale of ‘Sylphon’ Traps!”
* * *
“John A. Serrell,” related Warren Webster, “was our New York agent for more than thirty years—until he retired and went to California around 1932. He handled a lot of business for us, but in the beginning things happened in a very queer way. At first Mr. Serrell did not like the Vacuum System—he preferred another system. He was almost forced by his partner into handling the Vacuum System.
“When the Trinity Building was being planned, Mr. Serrell looked over the plans and said: ‘This won’t work at all—this layout won’t work.’
“I replied, ‘That’s your opinion. I am willing to personally guarantee it.’
“We installed the system and it worked beautifully.
“After this we sold $2500 worth of equipment to the big Colgate works. Serrell’s partner did not like the idea of passing up such commissions and he persuaded Serrell to take the Agency.
“In the end things worked out very well.”
* * *
“One time, when Mr. W. Morgan was manager of our Philadelphia office, he sent a letter to all plants equipped with Webster apparatus in the Philadelphia district,” my father said.
“This letter asked whether the plants were getting the expected results and offered to inspect and correct anything that wasn’t working satisfactorily.
“Soon a reply came back from the chief engineer of the DuPont Building, at Wilmington, saying: ‘We received your letter, but you need not come to see us. We are disgusted with your system of steam heating.’
“Mr. Morgan brought the letter over to me in Camden. He was very worried. I said: ‘Mr. Morgan, you are taking this thing too seriously. It’s four years since the installation was made and at that time it was working perfectly. Something has happened. I have never met this man, but I would like to know what he means by writing us such a letter as that.’
“I called the engineer on the ‘phone and told him, ‘I have the letter you wrote to Mr. Morgan, our Philadelphia manager, and I will be down by the next train to find out why this letter was written.’
“He said, ‘Who are you, anyway?’ I replied, ‘I’m the president of the Company.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘if you come down, I won’t see you.’
“I said: ‘That’s pretty strong. However, I’m coming down on the next train and I’m going to see you and have a talk. If there is anything wrong with the system, I will correct it.’
“I went down and the girl at the desk took my card in to the engineer and then came back and said he wouldn’t see me. I said:
‘He is in the other room, isn’t he? He can’t go out any other way, can he? Tell him I’m going to sit here until he comes out.”
“She went in and told him and he came out. I thought the only thing to do was to laugh. He turned red in the face and growled, ‘I told you I wouldn’t see you.’
“I said, ‘Give me half-a-chance and we will be friends before we part. Something needs adjustment here and I want to find out what is wrong.’
“He said, ‘What do you want to do about it?’
“I replied, ‘I want to see your chief engineer, if you have one, and have him take me down so I can make an inspection.’
” ‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘you don’t make any inspection without me.’
” ‘Fine,’ I said, ‘you take me down.’
“I found that in four years they had substituted every kind of trap for our devices. About one hundred and fifty of ours were piled in a box. I said:
” ‘I see what is the matter. These traps should be put back and made to operate without any back-pressure on the engine with full circulation. That can be done.’
“He replied, ‘That’s what you say, but we are not doing it!’
“I said: ‘It won’t cost you a cent. I will have our man down here and have everything adjusted all right. Ordinarily we charge for this, but I’m not going to charge you, for I know what you told me over the ‘phone. I can correct the trouble if you will allow me to do it.’
” ‘Well,’ said he, ‘go ahead if you think you can do it.’
“I had one of our best men go down to Wilmington for eleven days and fix the whole installation up with the old Webster devices which they thought were no good. I went down again when everything was completed and the engineer was well satisfied.
“After a while, he said: ‘You have got things working so nicely now, I see we should have consulted you before and given you a chance to fix it. However, we have got the building next door and that will have to be heated. Both are owned by DuPont.
“We got the order for the next door building. The installation proved perfectly satisfactory.
“Some time after this, the matter came up of heating the Equitable Building in New York. There were two competitors for the job. I went over to New York and saw Mr. Coleman DuPont personally.
“Mr. DuPont showed me the plans and we discussed the heating installation. He told me that he would be guided in his decision by an engineer in Wilmington in whom he had complete confidence.
“I was in Florida when we received the contract. The matter had been referred to the engineer in Wilmington with whom I had worked. I’m sure that making good on the DuPont Building in Wilmington got us the order for the Equitable Building in New York.
“While chatting with me, Mr. DuPont remarked: ‘I’ve never been to Florida. I don’t see how you can do it.’ I replied, ‘You are too busy or maybe you don’t really want to go.’ He said, ‘You are right when you say I’m too busy to go. Every time I go from here to Wilmington, I go in the afternoon. I sleep going down. At home I always keep a pad and pencil on a table, with an electric light, by my bedside and if I get a good idea I put it down right away.’
“It was a pleasure to meet and do business with Coleman DuPont.”
* * *
Every once in a while, as though to work off some of the boundless energy with which he was endowed, Warren Webster would take a hand in some enterprise outside the heating business.
The following anecdote tells of such an adventure. It also demonstrates the iron in the man and that anyone trying to impose on him was due for a surprise.
Said he: “Some architects in a large city owned the Unity Concrete Steel Frame Company, but they could not develop the business because if they specified Unity Steel Frames they were open to the charge of specifying their own product. So they offered me the business—patents, everything, for what seemed a reasonable amount. They said:
” ‘Here is the organization—a manager and fifteen employees. Take it over and you will be well repaid.’
“I bought it—and right away we began to have trouble, as they claimed the concrete sample house was not included in the sale. I let this go, but as soon as I went into the office, the manager, whom I shall call Sharp, came in and said, ‘Mr. Webster, we have built this business up and we want our salaries doubled.’
“I said, ‘Well, I haven’t been in possession thirty days and you make this demand. It is an awful jump. We bought this Company on the supposition that you were loyal. However, if you are in earnest, give us thirty days’ notice.’
“He replied, ‘I don’t know if we will—I’ll let you know tomorrow.’
” ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I thank you very much for that.’
“I went out and saw the people who sold me the business and told them what had occurred. ‘Well,’ they said, ‘we know you are a business man and can handle these fellows—we never could.’
I replied, ‘You only told me of the pros of this business but you said nothing of the cons.’ They said, ‘Well, there is nothing we can do.’
“Next morning my brother Theodore and I went over to the office and asked Sharp if he was serious about what he had demanded, and he replied that he most certainly was.’
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘go right along for thirty days. Let us have thirty days before considering the raise. At that time I will let you know what we will do.’
“I went back to the architects and asked who was the best man they knew who could take the management of the business and liquidate it.
“They told me of a man in New York, whom I shall call Trumbull. I ‘phoned him and then went to see him. I said, ‘Mr. Trumbull we don’t want to take any more contracts. The object is to liquidate the business we have got. Can you supervise that?’
“He said, ‘Oh, yes, if that’s all you want—supervision.’
“I told him about Sharp demanding double wages and he said:
‘Mr. Webster, at the end of thirty days I will tell you exactly how we can complete the contracts without Sharp.’
“At the end of thirty days, Trumbull came to the office and I called in Sharp. Sharp expected me to say, ‘Yes, we’ll double everybody’s salary.’ Instead, I said: ‘Mr, Sharp, this is Mr. Trumbull. I am placing him in charge of everything here. The thirty days are up and we cannot accede to your demand in regard to salaries. Now, Mr. Trumbull, you are in charge here. We will pay off up to tonight and if you wish to employ any of the men out there, it’s up to you.’
“Trumbull went outside and said to the men: ‘If you wish to stay, I will see that you get the same wages you have been receiving as long as the work lasts. Mr. Sharp, as far as you are concerned, you are through tonight—I don’t want you.’
“Mr. Trumbull was a good man in all respects. We completed our contracts and wound up the business.”
* * *
“One of our earliest European installations,” said Warren Webster, “was at the big Government Hospital at Odessa, Russia.
It was installed under the supervision of an American engineer whom we had in Europe at the time instructing our agents in installation work on Webster Steam Heating Systems.
“Another notable sale of Webster equipment was for the Kilgarde Gold Mines in Australia.
“Members of the James Simpson Company, of London, met representatives of the Australian Government at Sydney and took them on a tour of inspection of the various pumping stations in the United States, England and Germany. When they came to Philadelphia, I drove the party out to see the big pumping station in Fairmount Park. Then they visited other stations in the South and went to Europe.
“When I next saw Percy Simpson, the senior member of the firm, he told me that they had been awarded a four-million dollar contract for eighteen pumping stations, twenty miles apart, to take water up to the Kilgarde Gold Mines, a distance of three hundred and sixty miles. The installation was also to allow for tappings for use of the population along the route.
“He placed an order with us for eighteen 2000-horsepower Webster Vacuum Feedwater Heaters. These were eventually installed by the Simpson Company, one in each of the eighteen power plants they built for the Australian Government. Our reports showed that they all operated successfully.
“This was the biggest order we ever got at one time anywhere—and the equipment was selected after world-wide investigation.”