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S. Duncan Black & Alonzo G. Decker Sr.

Power Tool Potentates
October 10, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197612

S. Duncan Black & Alonzo G. Decker Sr.
Co-founders of Black & Decker Manufacturing Co.
Founded: 1910


Black and Decker-the names are revered by craftsmen and tool users the world over, from professional construction workers to weekend do-it-yourselfers. And with good reason. Before S. Duncan Black and Alonzo G. Decker, electric power tools were large, cumbersome pieces of machinery that required the user to come to them. Black and Decker's innovations literally brought power tools to the people and laid the foundation for the modern power tool industry.

Although both were born in rural communities outside Baltimore, Black and Decker had very different upbringings. Decker, whose father died when he was 7, was forced to quit school after the second grade and seek employment to support his struggling family. His first job was in a foundry, where he was assigned the arduous task of ladling molten brass. It was backbreaking work, and Decker sought a way out. With help from his girlfriend, who later became his wife, Decker landed a less taxing job with Boyden Air Brake.

Displaying a natural aptitude for engineering, Decker was transferred to the engineering department of Boyden's parent company, National Cosmotype, where he joined a team of workers that produced an automatic type-molding machine. A born salesman, Decker soon found himself being sent across the country to demonstrate and install the machines. He was even sent to England, where he negotiated a $1 million distribution deal with Lord Northcliffe. Flush with his success, Decker promptly returned to America and got married. Unfortunately, National Cosmotype didn't act quickly enough on Northcliffe's offer, and the English businessman lost interest. The resulting fiasco so discouraged Decker that he quit National Cosmotype and accepted an $18-per-week position as an engineer at Rowland Telegraph Co., where in 1906 he would meet and befriend his future partner.

S. Duncan Black had a much easier childhood. The son of middle-class parents, he attended high school, and upon graduation was hired by Rowland. He began tracing engineering drawings and later moved into sales. His early training at Rowland would come in handy when he and Decker eventually set out on their own.

Both men were exemplary employees, but there was little room for advancement. When Rowland refused to meet a $25 offer from another company, Decker quit. A loyal customer encouraged Decker to start his own company, offering to steer as much business as possible his way. Encouraged by the support, Decker opened his own shop and attempted to persuade Black to join. With a wife and three children to support, Black was hesitant to give up his secure income. But when Rowland cut his sales commission, Black knew it was time to move on.

In the fall of 1910, the partners decided to start their own company. Only a lack of funds stood in their way. To raise the capital needed, Black sold his prized Maxwell-Briscoe runabout to Decker's father-in-law, and Decker mortgaged his home. Putting up a combined investment of $1,200 and backed by $3,000 from other investors, the partners formed the Black & Decker Manufacturing Co.

Initially, the company manufactured an array of products made to order, including a milk bottle cap machine, a vest-pocket adding machine, a candy-dipping machine and machinery for the U.S. Mint. But despite their early success, Black and Decker wanted to develop their own products-tools and machinery that would appeal to a broad market. In 1917 the duo released their first official Black & Decker tool-a portable air compressor called the Lectroflater. It sold well, but not enough to keep the company afloat. Their second product, however, would start a power tool revolution and become something of a signature product that would define the company: a portable half-inch electric drill with a patented pistol grip and a trigger instead of a switch. (The original drill is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.)

Fueled by Decker's expert engineering and Black's uncanny sales ability, the company took off like a rocket. By 1918, Black & Decker had a factory in Washington, DC, and offices in Boston and New York City. The brand was also represented overseas in England, Canada, Russia, Australia and Japan. Worldwide growth was phenomenal, and by the end of the decade, Black and Decker's original investment of $1,200 had mushroomed into annual sales of more than $1 million.

After surviving the rigors of the Depression and the turbulence of World War II, Black & Decker expanded beyond the industrial and professional power tool markets to become the world's largest manufacturer of consumer power tools.

Black served as president of the company from 1910 until his death in 1951, when Decker replaced him. Decker in turn passed the torch to his son, Alonzo Decker Jr., upon his death in 1956.

Today, Black & Decker is the world's largest producer of power tools and the largest full-time supplier of small household appliances in North America. Boasting more than $4 billion in annual sales, the company has manufacturing operations in 14 countries, and its products and services are marketed in more than 100 countries. In addition to portable electric power tools, its product line has expanded to include lawn and garden products, household goods such as the Dustbuster, security hardware, fastening systems, glass-container-making equipment, plumbing supplies and even steel golf club shafts.



Have Tools, Will Travel
One of the main reasons behind the tremendous success of Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. is a unique marketing technique pioneered by its founders, Alonzo G. Decker Sr. and S. Duncan Black. Firm believers in the power of customer-centric selling, in the 1920s the partners converted two buses into schoolrooms on wheels, which were manned by company salespeople who toured the United States offering product demonstrations to salespeople and plant operators.

To boost lagging sales during the Depression, the company bought a six-passenger airplane and transformed it into a flying showroom that took tools for reconditioning aircraft engineers directly to end users.


Like Father, Like Son
After graduating from college in 1929, Alonzo G. Decker Sr.'s son, Alonzo Decker Jr., joined Black & Decker as an electrical engineer, focusing on engineering, research and manufacturing. During the 1940s, when Black & Decker did a brisk business selling electric drills to defense contractors, the younger Decker was perplexed by the large number of reorders Black & Decker was receiving. Believing that the drills were failing, he looked into the situation and discovered that workers were taking the tools home.

Realizing that he had stumbled onto a virtually untapped market, Alonzo Jr. convinced his father that Black & Decker should begin making tools for the home. As a result, after the war, Black & Decker became the first large power tool company to focus on the do-it-yourself market. An obvious inheritor of his father's vision, in the 1960s, Alonzo Jr. was also directly responsible for creating the first cordless drill, creating a new and very lucrative market for the power tool juggernaut.