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November 16, 2013

IBM thrived in region during Great Depression

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The Daily Star

---- — Last weekend, we learned that many local unemployed men found much-needed temporary work by building new sewers and water lines in Oneonta during the Great Depression. While the times were tough for so many, just about 65 miles southeast of here a totally different employment strategy was in progress in Endicott, at the IBM Corp.

Many Oneontans took note of what was going on in Broome County. Local people were early and heavy investors in IBM stock, originally known in part as Bundy Manufacturing, which had some roots in Oneonta.

The Thursday, Nov. 23, 1933 edition of The Oneonta Herald reported, “How a large corporation has continued to prosper during the depression was told by G.B. Armstrong of Endicott, director of education of the International Business Machines Corp. at the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis club at the Elks club last week.” The Elks Club was where today’s 99 Main St. is found.

Armstrong gave a history of the company from 1911, after three companies were combined to form a corporation called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. Representing one of the three companies was Oneonta resident George W. Fairchild, who became president of the newly formed corporation, renamed IBM in 1924. Armstrong also told of the impetus given to the organization when Thomas J. Watson joined the staff in 1914.

“Declaring that when the depression began,” the Herald reported, “it was not spoken of in the firm’s offices” under Watson’s leadership. Everyone in the organization continued to follow the firm’s motto, “Think.” Engineers continued to study business needs, developed new machines to solve their problems and an aggressive sales campaign was pursued.

During the Depression, IBM continued to open offices and showrooms, erect new buildings and conduct schools for foremen, engineers, salesmen and factory employees. More than 700 were enrolled in the newly dedicated IBM School on North Street in Endicott at that time.

From “Think: A Biography of the Watsons and IBM” by William Rodgers, Thomas J. Watson believed that, “There was not, in fact, much wrong that better salesmanship and more straight thinking couldn’t repair. The dance of the millions, he said, was over, and a reliance on the old virtues, harder work, and rugged individualism was called for.”

With the conditions of the Great Depression lurking nearly everywhere, Watson and many of his salesmen went on a tour of Europe, “where his men were spared the ‘handicap’ of melancholy conditions. There was ‘more gloom in New York than anywhere else,’ and the IBM sales convention in the ancient city of Florence renewed his enthusiasm.”

When Watson and staff returned from Europe, he reported IBM was doing well. “As for the Depression, he said it ‘had nothing to do with our business; we have no right to talk or think pessimism, because the first eight months of this year have been better than the corresponding period of any year in the history of the business.’”

“Yet the pull of the depression was inexorable,” Rodgers wrote, “so great that in spite of IBM’s expanding sales, and in contradiction to general conditions, its stock rode downward with the bears, totaling a fall of 202 points by 1932, the lowest in eleven years.”

“Watson was, virtually from the time of (President) Hoover’s departure, a devoted supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal. With the passage of the National Recovery Act and social security legislation, American business was swamped with mandated bookkeeping and data-recording operations. IBM machines were leased to government agencies in increasing volume, and to business and industrial companies who required them to comply with federal demands for information on which welfare, NRA codes, and public projects were dependent.”

IBM did more than survive in the worst years of the Depression; it thrived. By 1934, IBM factory employees were placed on salary, eliminating piecework and providing employees with an added degree of economic stability. A group life insurance plan was also initiated for employees, marking the beginning of IBM’s pioneering employee benefits programs. Paid holidays and vacations began in 1937.

IBM stockholders, who’d held on to their shares despite the 1932 slump, were in for better days ahead.

On Monday: Some changes in local college student customs began in 1968.

Oneonta City Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText ColorHistorian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.