The legacy of a Rhode Island manufacturing giant and its “unlikely” leader

The Rhode Island philanthropist passed away July 1 at 99 years old. Sharpe was a longtime president of Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Co., a giant in American manufacturing history and at one time one of the largest employers in the state. Ged Carbone is the author of the 2017 book, Brown & Sharpe and the Measure of American Industry. He sat down to speak with our afternoon host Dave Fallon about the legacy of Hank Sharpe and the company he led for over 30 years.

This conversation was produced for the ear. Click the orange play button above to listen. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Dave Fallon: Well, Ged Carbone, welcome.

Good Carbon: Hi, Dave.

Fallon: Let’s start out by getting a sense of the company’s prestige and influence, Brown & Sharpe, and Henry Sharpe Jr.’s presence in leading that company.

Carbone: Henry Sharpe Jr. was an unlikely head of a major machine tool company. And a machine tool company is a company that makes the machines that make other tools that shape metal. And, you know, here’s this guy, Brown-educated, wears a bowtie all the time, humble almost to the point of being obsequious except that he wasn’t. He was a very good listener, very quiet, deliberate man. … And he was very different, and for his time very forward in his thinking. And I think you can say that, for the first 20 years of his being a CEO, president of a machine tool company, Henry Sharpe Jr. Never made a mistake until the early 1970s. He really had a, pretty much a perfect record in growing that company forward.

Fallon: And how was the importance of the company in relation to Rhode Island and the global economy?

Carbone: Well, in 1960 a truck hit Henry Sharpe Jr. on Airport Road. And he, his health was in jeopardy. It sent major financial shocks throughout the market. And President Eisenhower’s commission on the future of manufacturing got a cablegram right away, that Mr. Henry Sharpe Jr. had been hit by a truck. I mean, you know, he was a person of national, and even international, importance in manufacturing circles, because his company was. … You know, in World War II, Brown & Sharpe employed 12,000 manufacturing people in downtown Providence. I can’t imagine any, any place that could or would do that today.

Fallon: Then times started changing, labor issues started surfacing. Reaganomics started entering the picture, and management wanted to be able to assign employees to multiple jobs, for example, and played a resistance by the machinists union, seniority rights a role. A new president and CEO came in, who was really into the pro-management side [and] felt that the unions had too much power.

Carbone: When Henry Sharpe moved the company to North Kingstown in 1964, the Pawtucket Times called the new plant an “industrial Eden.” … And they hired a couple of hundred new machinists at $5 an hour, which was the equivalent today of about $80,000 a year. So, you know, you had a couple hundred people, you just needed a high school degree and some math skills, and you could have a good middle class job. But of course, that did begin to change in the late 70s. Even before President Reagan, there was a push from, you know, from wealthy manufacturers and business people to deregulate industry, and to kind of swing the pendulum away from, from the Roosevelt-era labor gains. And it all came to a clash right out there at the former “industrial Eden,” which pretty quickly turned into something else.

Fallon: A very long, long strike.

Carbone: Oh, it was a long and nasty strike. I mean, you know, it began in 1981, and in the spring of ’82 somebody tried to blow up a supervisor’s car, put a bomb in their car outside of the house. Somebody fired bullets into another manager’s house. And then, some of the, one of the replacement workers made a homemade pistol and used it to shoot it and hit one of the strikers. So you had a really, initially very violent strike. It was a real pushback and change from 20, 30 years of labor, relative labor peace.

Fallon: Brown & Sharpe was sold in the early ’90s to a competitor in Sweden, Hexagon AB. Did Henry Sharpe Jr. ever regret doing that?

Carbone: He knew at that point, you know, there weren’t many options. You know, if you look at the early 1980s, regardless of the strike, at that time in the early ’80s, 80% of US machine tool workers lost their jobs. So had there been no strike, Brown & Sharpe still would have got out of the machine tools business.

Fallon: Anything you want to add?

Carbone: Rick Greenwood from the Providence Preservation Society pointed out that Brown & Sharpe’s embedded capital is still alive in the landscape of Rhode Island and Providence today. And what he meant by embedded capital was the buildings and the parks, such as India Point Park, that Brown & Sharpe and its people built and funded – like Joseph Brown, one of the originators of Brown & Sharpe, and who founded the company in 1830. On his death, he gave $10,000 to the Providence Public Library before there was even a library, just to get one started. Jane Brown, his wife, the Jane Brown wing of the hospital is named after her. … So they’re all over. They started the Providence Journal company. They bought the Providence Journal, incorporated the company in 1880, and that’s really where they made most of their money, by the end of it.

Fallon: Ged Carbone, author of Brown & Sharpe and the Measure of American Industry. It’s been a pleasure talking.

Carbone: Nice to talk to you, Dave.

Fallon: Thank you very much. This is The Public’s Radio.

Disclosure: Henry and his wife Peggy Sharpe were instrumental in starting an independent Rhode Island Public Radio, The Public’s Radio, and through the years have been major financial supporters.


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