Spring 1998

The Entrepreneurial Spirit - Sixteenth in a Series

Seeing the Possibilities - The Remarkable Story of William Price '37

by Michael W. Dorsey

Bill Price has never met a problem he couldn't solve. In a career that has spanned more than six decades and a host of industries and occupations, he has proven himself to be a master problem solver, often seeing solutions where others have found only dead ends. Through the combination of an inventive mind, keen insight and an entrepreneurial bent, he has retrieved products from the brink of disaster, founded and sold highly successful companies, won dozens of patents and sold most of them for tidy profits, and retired twice - the first time when he was just 31.

From an early age, Price proved himself a natural inventor, able to take a problem and turn it into an opportunity, able to look around him and see a landscape rich with the potential for change and improvement, able to thrive in a business with no rules and no guidelines - a world where anything is possible with imagination and vision. His inventions range from machinery for manufacturing and packaging cosmetics, to a system, now employed by builders around the world, for making fiberglass used to form concrete into complex shapes, to a drive-up teller window for banks that can move not only in and out, but up and down to accommodate cars of different heights. But Price has also been the consummate entrepreneur, the rare inventor with the instinct and initiative to turn good ideas into highly successful businesses.

Now mostly retired from the fields of engineering, business and industry, Price still can't help seeing problems in the world around him and finding solutions. "We filed a patent application just last week," he tells an interviewer. "I developed an antitheft device for cars. I figure this device could be sold for under $100. There are well over 100 million cars on the road today that have no security devices, so the possibilities are just fantastic."

"One day I went to talk with the head of engineering and I asked him, 'Who is the top-paid man here?' He said it was the chief architect. I told him that he had two chief architects - that I was one, too. He said, 'Well, then, we can't have you.'"

Seeing the possibilities - and understanding how to unleash them through hard work and good business sense - is something Price observed firsthand growing up in Brookline, Mass. His father, a native of Lithuania, had emigrated to the United States around the turn of the century after studying in St. Petersburg and London. Beginning with next to nothing, he founded Price Pressing Machine Co. and, later, Acme Electric Heating Co., a large industrial electrical heating company.

"My father was very imaginative, and he loved to patent his ideas," Price says. "For example, he invented a steam pressing machine that is still used today. He traveled all over the country to set up garment manufacturers to use steam pressing instead of hand irons. He didn't like dealing in the garment industry, though, so he eventually sold his patent and the business."

Bill Price had hoped to study engineering at Harvard, but when the college closed its engineering school, he made the decision to travel farther afield to go to school. He enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but he says he felt unchallenged by his freshman courses. Halfway through his first year, he transfered to WPI. "WPI put me on probation," he says, "which worried me because the courses there seemed much more advanced than those at Rensselaer. I had to be very careful and study hard."

To catch up on the material he had missed, Price tutored fellow students in Sanford Riley Hall. He managed to do well enough in several courses to be exempted from taking the final exam. One exam he could not get out of, though, was in the physics course taught by the infamous Morton Masius. "It was tough...very tough," Price remembers. "He impressed upon everybody - especially me - to learn the first part of our studies. The rest, he said, would come easy. I studied the first part very hard, and the rest did come easy.

"It was a three-hour final, and I left after an hour. Professor Masius came out and asked me, "What's the matter, can't you handle it? Don't you know the answers?' But I'd finished the exam, and I got the top grade in the class. Two years later, I walked into his office and he remembered me right away. I asked him how, with all the students he had, that he happened to remember me. He said, "You are the only student who ever walked out early from one of my exams, and I will never forget it.'"

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, Price went to work for his father's company. At one time he designed high-dielectric ceramics for use in large saline heat-treating tanks that the company had contracted to build for the Navy. But Price says his father never gave him the credit he was due for his design work on the tanks - work that had solved a problem engineers at a major competing manufacturing company had been unable to tackle. So when he saw an ad in the local newspaper for a junior engineering position at Eastman Kodak Company, he decided to apply and was soon on his way to Rochester, N.Y.

"In those days, a junior engineer sharpened pencils, delivered blueprints, and so on," he says. "After a few weeks, I couldn't take it. I went to the head of engineering and told him I needed something that would give me more responsibility. Perhaps just to take care of this wise kid, they made me a senior engineer - the youngest senior engineer in Kodak's history."

In his new position, Price was put in charge of the electrical and mechanical design work for a huge new building where Kodak would house its film finishing department. "I had never been on a construction site in my life," he says, "but I had a copy of the building codes and I knew layout. I'd make sketches and the architectural drafting department would turn them into drawings. I'd take them into the field and the wonderful foreman would say, "You can't do it that way, it has to be this way.' I'd have the drawings redone and we'd go ahead. It was the first time a building at Kodak had been finished within budget and on time."

"If someone has a problem, I try to help. The majority of the clients I see should not go into business. I tell them, 'If you want to have fun, take your money and go to Vegas. At least you will have enjoyed yourself.' I don't like to see people lose their money."

In the brief time he spent at Kodak, Price was responsible for two patents. The first was for an interlock switch that instantly cut off power to the lights inside and outside a darkroom if the darkroom door was inadvertently opened, preventing the film from being exposed. The second was for matched pairs of electric motors for a film coating system that assured that the proper thickness of emulsion was applied to the film. According to Kodak policy, Price received a total of $1 for the two patents. "That hurt my pride," he says.

Price says Kodak also failed to pay him what he thought his work was worth. "After my success with the film finishing building, I thought I deserved a raise from the $40 a week I was making. In a few weeks, they came and said they had gotten me a raise;

I didn't ask how much. When I got my paycheck, it was for $44 - a $4-a-week raise. I said, "I'm sorry, I think I'm worth more than $44 and I'd like to resign.' "

Kodak asked him to stay on to oversee the remaining details for the building. "I said, "What do I get paid as a consultant?' They said, "$50 a day.' So I started the next week at $50 a day, instead of $44 a week. I learned that consultants make good money!"

After leaving Kodak in 1941, Price moved to New York City, where he landed a job as a draftsman for a consulting firm that had received a contract from the War Department to build the Rome, N.Y., Air Depot (now Griffiss Air Force Base). The base was to have its own generating plant that would be linked to the distribution grid of Niagara Hudson Power Corp., so that the military could sell power to the utility at times of low demand and purchase extra power at times of peak demand.

Price was assigned to design the electrical substation that would tie the base into the grid. "There were all kinds of catalogs that people who do that kind of design work use, so I went to the catalogs. I designed a substation and listed all the equipment that would be needed, and the War Department accepted the design. Everybody was excited, and I later found out why. That was the firm's fourth attempt to get a substation design approved, and they were in danger of losing the whole contract over it."

Price says he does not like to draw, so he convinced the head of the engineering department to assign him seven draftsmen that he kept busy by making freehand sketches of designs for electrical systems for the depot, which the draftsmen turned into finished drawings. "One day I went to talk with the head of engineering and I asked him, "Who is the top-paid man here?' He said it was the chief architect. I told him that he had two chief architects - that I was one, too. He said, "Well, then, we can't have you.' I decided to leave, but instead they agreed to pay me the same salary as the chief architect - which was more than eight times what I was making as a draftsman."

After the depot was completed, Price went on to work as a consultant for several other architects and engineers, developing the electrical and mechanical plans for plants for Remington Arms, General Electric and other major companies. One day he received a call from the president of cosmetics maker Helene Curtis in Chicago. Aware of Price's work for Kodak, he asked if he could fix a problem with a movie projector the company's military division was making for the Air Force. "To be honest, I had never set foot in Kodak's camera plant," Price says, "but I agreed, anyway."

(Price had another reason in accepting the company's offer to move him to Chicago; in 1942 he had married the former Sydelle Katz, who was originally from the Windy City.)

Price discovered that the projector was of exceptional quality. Its one failing was the direct-drive mechanism it used for rewinding, which had a tendency to tear the film. "It was obvious to me that it needed something that had variable tension on it," he says. "I designed a tiny slip clutch with two cork faces and a spring behind it. We installed it in a few days and ran film through it with no problem."

The success of the clutch led to an assignment to solve a problem with the manufacture of gun mounts that Helene Curtis was making for the rear turrets of bombers. Designed by engineers at another company, the mounts were being rejected at a phenomenal rate. "I went through the drawings and tightened up the tolerances quite a bit," he says. The mounts cost a bit more to manufacture, but the rejection rate dropped from as high as 95 percent down to about 5 percent."

Impressed with the ease with which Price could find his way to the heart of an engineering challenge, and knowing that work in the company's military division would slow after the war, the chairman of Helene Curtis invited Price to become a full-time problem solver for the company's cosmetics division. One of the first problems he tackled revolved around the wartime restriction on the use of glass bottles for packaging. The cosmetics division had recently introduced a new permanent cold-wave solution, and demand for the product was so high, the company knew it would quickly go through the half million empty bottles it had in storage.

"I asked the head of the chemical division if the solution could be made in concentrated form," Price says. "He said it was possible, so we made a concentrate and I designed a machine that would make ampoules from glass tubing, which was not restricted. The machine cut the tubing and put in bottoms. The ampoules were filled with concentrate, then the necks were drawn and sealed. The customer just had to open the ampoule and mix the concentrate with water."

A wartime consulting project for Helene Curtis led Price into the cosmetics business. He eventually founded Rona Industries in a storefront in Chicago and built it into the nation's largest cosmetics packager and manufacturer.

Helene Curtis also manufactured permanent wave pads that included thermite powder, a material that generates a considerable amount of heat when exposed to moisture. Because of humidity in the air, a fire would erupt in the plant's dust collectors nearly every day. Price suggested handling the thermite in a room with extremely low humidity. He supervised the design and construction of a 100-ton air conditioning system that scrubbed the air and heated it to 103 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing the relative humidity down to just 2 percent. The system reduced the frequency of fires to once every few months.

Price found opportunities to do consulting work for a number of other cosmetics companies. One client was poised to introduce a new perfume with a national promotion, only to discover that the bottle would not fit into the boxes that had already been made for it. With no time to print new boxes, they turned to Price. "Within a couple of hours, I built a small steam chamber," he says. "We shot steam into the boxes, which made them soggy. The bottle fit in the soggy box. You couldn't get it out easily after the box dried, but that was immaterial. From then on, anytime that company had a problem, I had a chance to work on it."

As a consultant, Price took note of the large fees paid to subcontractors. "I told the chairman of the company, "I'll make a deal with you. I would like to go into the cosmetics packing business. I'll take any subcontract you have at 50 cents on the dollar, but I don't want to bid on it.' "

The deal was made, and Price founded his own firm, Rona Industries, in a storefront in downtown Chicago. He started out with $700 in capital and just two employees. When he sold the company in 1946, it had 3,300 employees and had grown to become the largest firm of its kind in the country. "I was satisfied with a profit of just $1 per employee per day," he says. "But other companies couldn't get by on that, so we had no competition."

Over time, the company expanded beyond packaging and began manufacturing shampoos, colognes, perfumes and other cosmetics that were sold under a variety of national brand names. "We started Sears, Montgomery Ward, Walgreens and a number of other national chains in the cosmetics business," Price says. At other times, it set up operations lines to package boxes of assorted valentines, assemble and package the first American ballpoint pen for the pen manufacturer, and build a toy bank shaped like a wall telephone. "We also became the country's largest export packager of military supplies for the European and Pacific theaters," he says.

Price sold the business when the weather in Chicago began to take a toll on his health. At the age of 31, he retired and moved to Phoenix, where he built the house he has lived in ever since. Not content to relax in the sun, he bought the oldest and largest machine shop in Arizona - "as a hobby," he says - and quickly increased the shop's business more than tenfold.

One contract came from the Atomic Energy Commission, which needed cooling-water tubes for reactors that made enriched uranium. Price's shop proved the only source able to manufacture the tubes to the precise tolerances required by the AEC. Eventually, as other contractors failed to deliver acceptable parts, Price became the sole supplier. Beginning with a contract for 10,000 tubes, he went on to make several million, running his shop around the clock to keep up with the demand.

Price also made street signs and traffic light poles for the growing city of Phoenix. He won patents for a number of devices used in secondary electrical distribution systems. "At one time there was not a utility pole in the state of Arizona that did not have something on it that came out of our plant."

When the Salt River Project, a public electric utility and water company in Arizona, began switching its distribution system over from 25 hertz to 60 hertz, farmers in the region had to replace the large 25-cycle electric motors that powered their irrigation pumps. Price went into the business of rebuilding the motors into a vertical-thrust design. The rebuilt motors, which sold for half the cost of new motors, were not only rewound to operate on 60-cycle power, but were given new bearings that made them easier to service.

In 1948, Price's machine shop merged with a company that owned the rights to make the Navion, the "Cadillac" of small civilian aircraft. Price made the parts for the highly successful plane.

In 1948, Price underwent a major operation, followed by four months of recuperation. Unable to provide day-to-day supervision of the machine shop, he decided to sell the business. He received an offer to merge with a holding company in Texas that held the rights to manufacture a single-engine aircraft called the Navion. Designed and built just after World War II as a trainer by North American Aviation, it was modeled after North American's famed P-51 Mustang. The all-metal plane was considered the "Cadillac" of small civilian aircraft. "To this day," Price says, "it remains the only small plane in the air with a chromoly steel frame."

The holding company was making replacement parts for existing Navions and was negotiating with an Italian company to build new planes. Price prevailed on the company to let him manufacture the parts in Arizona and ship them to a plant in Texas to be assembled into finished aircraft. Operating as the Navion Aircraft Company, the firm also redesigned the plane, converting it from a five-seater to a six-seater. Within a few years, Navion Aircraft was producing 26 planes a month, the largest production volume for any private plane in its price category. "The demand was so great, we didn't need a sales or marketing department," Price says. "The plane sold itself."

Encouraged by the early success of the new Navion, the board of directors of Navion Aircraft decided to take the company public. "As president, I said, "We do not have enough history to go public. I think we should wait a few years,'" Price remembers. "I got voted down. I resigned and took my money out, and they tried to go public. They spent $15 million in the process and ended up bankrupt."

After leaving Navion in the early 1960s - his second retirement - Price turned his attention to business and investment opportunities. He helped found the fourth largest bank in the city and served on its board of directors for 25 years, until it was sold. He invested extensively in real estate in and around Phoenix, including buildings in the bustling business district. "In past years," he says, "I've been involved in millions of dollars in real estate transactions."

Over the years, Price has also been involved in a number of joint ventures in Asia. This phase of his career began when he acted as an engineering consultant for a multinational consortium building a plant to quick-freeze fish in Singapore. "Korea supplied the fish, Italy supplied the capital, and the United States supplied the technology," he says. "It went very well. Compared to similar plants in this country, it was fairly small, but it was the first such facility in that country."

Price later became a consultant in manufacturing and distribution for a machine tool company in Taiwan. "They built automated machine tools and we set up a company to sell them all over the world," he says. "We didn't sell many in the United States, but Europe was a big customer."

His consulting work in Asia brought him to the Orient quite often. On those trips, he took time out to indulge his interest in collecting art, antique carvings, gold coins and fine jewelry, interests he has pursued on other overseas trips, including a visit to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1972. Price was a member of a delegation of business leaders who accompanied President Richard Nixon when he became the first U.S. president to visit the Soviet empire. "I've also traveled around the world many times and seen things most people see only in brochures," he says.

"The trip to Russia was an interesting experience," he says. "We had access to places the average tourist never sees. Though I enjoyed the visit, I decided that I could never do business there. Everything moves too slow. Most business meetings involve eating and drinking, and I do not drink. Plus, the technology I saw there was 30 to 40 years old - absolutely useless, as far as I was concerned."

Although he considers himself semiretired now, Price remains active, despite health problems that have worsened in recent years. He also continues to recover from a serious automobile accident in 1996 that left him with slightly diminished use of his right arm. His wife has also been seriously ill for many years.

He is chairman of Price Investment Fund, a diversified fund dealing in varied areas of finance, real estate, stocks, bonds and other investment vehicles. Perhaps his greatest current interest is helping others turn their good ideas into successful businesses through his work for the Small Business Administration and SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. He joined the ranks of SCORE 15 years ago, and is today a lifetime member and a member of the executive committee of the Phoenix chapter. Over that span, he has counseled hundreds of potential entrepreneurs, critiquing their ideas and plans and encouraging the small number who have the makings of a going venture. After a career that has involved virtually every aspect of starting and running a business, Price is in a position to offer the kinds of insight and wisdom that few executives can.

"I've been involved in so many areas," he says. "I've covered engineering, I've covered manufacturing, I've covered management, I've covered banking, I've covered finance and business planning. Still, I'm never sure if I'm an asset or a liability. If someone has a problem, I try to help. The majority of the clients I see should not go into business. I tell them, "If you want to have fun, take your money and go to Vegas. At least you will have enjoyed yourself.' I don't like to see people lose their money. A few ideas do have potential, and that makes it interesting."

Price is especially proud of one particular success story. "One client came in with his wife and the first thing he said was, "I'm wasting my time and I'm wasting your time.' His wife said, "Listen to Dr. Price.' They had a product that removes the hard water ring from the toilet bowl. A very simple product, and it works. He said, "I can't get anybody to help me with this.' I gave him the names of friends in the plastics business, and when he left, I said, "If you don't make a success of this, it will be your own fault.' That product is now in almost all the major hardware stores. In a few years they'll be able to retire, all because of this little device that sells for about five dollars."

Price says his work for SCORE is just "something to do," but it is clear as he talks about the people he has helped, and the ideas that have germinated with the aid of his counsel, that there is a bit more to it. Like everything else he has accomplished in his distinguished career, it is yet another opportunity to transform problems into solutions, to turn the fruits of imagination into money-making enterprises, and, through the remarkable alchemy of entrepreneurship, to transmute inspiration, vision and hard work into products that can truly change the world. And that may be the greatest legacy for a master problem solver.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:54 EDT 1999