The United States of America vs. Hans Fischer
In one way Fischer was like so many other men of great wealth, who, having made fortunes and carved destinies in distant metropolises, rush to Palm Beach to play alongside other rich men. They arrive, as Fischer did, in their twilight years to bask not only in the comforting sun but also to immerse themselves in the glittering social swirl of this Fantasy Island.
But as much as Fischer this year at 60 could look bark at what life had yielded him — a prosperous manufacturing combine, material possessions that lesser men can only yearn for, good health, a loving family — there was one thing he did not have, the one thing he craved the most: total control over his own fate.
To a small degree what befell Fischer was blurted out in a story or two in the newspapers this spring when he came up against one of the most potent and unforgiving forces in the world: the government of the United States of America.
At the time he was briefly in court on what seemed to be a routine tax dispute between the government and a wealthy businessman. It was hardly a case that would prompt reporters covering the courts to pursue for in-depth articles, even with what strangely followed the judicial decision. But in between the lines of those short articles is an allegory about a society whose values are changing as mercurially as the shifts in tradewinds buffeting Florida's eastern shores.
Roles once blindly accepted have been tossed topsy-turvy, and it has become difficult for a man — even a rich and insightful man such as Hans Fischer — to know what rules to live by.
For Fischer the paradox was that while he chased what he thought was the American Dream, he would not understand until it was too late that the dream, like everything else in America, also has changed. Indeed, some would argue that the American Dream of self-determination no longer exists.
But many things were paradoxical about Fischer, a man who followed the beat of a different drummer.
Socially, for instance, he could be engaging, witty, sardonic. And when speaking in an ever-so-slight, clipped German accent, dressed in a black dinner jacket, surrounded by the crystal chandeliers of his Palm Beach villa, discoursing on world issues, he was charming, if not commanding. Society writers would probably call him "continental."
But there was, conversely, Hans Fischer the no-nonsense businessman: brilliant, inquisitive, perceptive, uncompromising, shrewd and cold. It could be said that his sometimes stiff Germanic countenance, his seemingly relentless pursuit of money, his drive to ever expand his industrial empire, his self-assuredness in business deals, intimidated and sometimes offended his more mildly disposed professional associates.
Then there was Hans Fischer, the family man: devoted to his wife of nearly 40 years, dedicated to the well-being of his five children, beaming over their achievements, proud to be an American.
But it really was difficult to figure out Hans Fischer even if you were his good friend — and he had many good friends. He was candid about his views on business, government and the great issues of the day, but vocalized precious little about himself, giving rise to endless speculation in Palm Beach about his background.
Whether greeting someone at his Waite Hill estate, at his Palm Beach villa or even on his 105-foot yacht, he seemed to take on a Gatsby-like mysteriousness to those who knew him casually. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional Great Gatsby, Fischer had risen from humble beginnings to a position of great wealth.
And just as Gatsby sought social acceptance, so too did Fischer. After Fischer made his money, he promptly bought a mansion and began inviting society figures to his lavish parties, much the way Gatsby did. And if Gatsby left departing guests foggy about who he was, so too did Fischer leave more than one visitor wondering who he was and how he could have arrived so rapidly.
Fischer was born in Vienna in September 1918, the only son of a highly cultured haute bourgeois family. His father, Albert Fischer, was a successful mechanical engineer who spoke seven languages. His mother, Johanna Geiringer Fischer, was equally conversant in foreign tongues and a woman whose life was devoted to art, music and literature. Even in Viennese society where most cultivated women played the violin or piano, Mrs. Fischer was acclaimed as an accomplished pianist.
Fischer was a child when his parents divorced and 17 when his mother died. Nevertheless, throughout his life he would often speak of her reverentially, expounding on her love of the fine arts. An oil painting of his mother as a beautiful young woman, her golden hair flowing into a dark formal gown, still hangs in the foyer of the Palm Beach home.
The young Hans Fischer inherited the best traits of both parents. His engineering and design skills and his uncanny ability to sense new trends came from his father. His artistic qualities came from his mother. He knew most operettas and operas by heart, could play the violin and had an intimate knowledge of Mozart.
It was in this pre-World War II Viennese milieu that Fischer was to demonstrate the first signs of his virtuosity.
Vienna of the 1930s was still the cultural magnet of Europe, its spirit reflected in the music of Mozart, Strauss, Beethoven and others, its later scientific achievement in Freud. Refined and educated society, the society into which Hans Fischer was born, preoccupied itself with pursuits of the mind and physical senses, with an emphasis on art, architecture, literature, theater, music, opera and various aspects of medicine and design.
The city had been the seat of the Hapsburgs who dominated Central Europe for centuries until 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy broke up, the year Fischer was born.
Because of this Hapsburg hegemony, Vienna was an international melting pot with countless generations of intermarriages between Italians, Hungarians, Germans, Slavs, and even the French because of Napoleonic invasions.
The pooling of cultures not only created an atmosphere in which artistic development could flourish, but it also blurred religious and ethnic distinctions among the upper classes. Unlike in America and Cleveland where your place in the pecking order is still subtly conferred by religion, ethnic background and the date of your ancestors' landing, in Vienna status in gentle society was contingent on cultural background, artistic and academic accomplishments.
Fischer himself descended from a blend of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant and an ethnic mix that for generations had transcended Austria's narrow borders. His hybrid heritage was typical of the educated Viennese classes. Yet Austria itself was still heavily Catholic — a Hapsburg legacy — and his parents, while not professing any religion themselves, baptized him a Catholic, his mother's original faith. Fischer took instructions in Catholicism, but as a young man was only nominally Catholic, which also was not an unusual practice among cultured Viennese families.
It was only in America years later that Fischer would encounter social snubs from various Catholics, Protestants and Jews. In placing an emphasis on religion and blood unknown among upper classes in Vienna, they believed he was avoiding admitting to a portion of his ancestry: that of being Jewish, neither a religion nor a culture he considered his. In fact, this concern over bloodlines in America would confuse and anger him.
But such considerations were not to hamper Fischer's drive, and perhaps they fueled his motivation to succeed.
"He was not ordinary, not run of the mill, even as a young man," recalls his sister, Mrs. Viola Lowen, now of Denver. "You have to go back into the family history, with its emphasis on academic and professional achievement, to understand his motivations.
Whatever he did had to be excellent. He was a genius with capacity to analyze critical situations far above the ability of the common man."
At 16 years old, Fischer already had decided to pursue his father's engineering profession. Within two years he completed the American equivalent of high school and two years of college.
When his father moved on to London from Vienna in 1937, he followed, continuing his education at the University of London. But his ability to quickly analyze the meaning of a situation, an ability that would in later years make him an American success story, brought him back to Vienna after the Nazi invasion of March 1938.
Fischer understood the realities of what was happening. Despite the detached attitude of the refined Viennese about one's mixed ethnic and religious heritage, the Nazis with their obsession about anything remotely Jewish, their contempt for the artistic classes, would not allow such a fiercely independent man as Fischer to live freely in Austria.
"He would not stay in a place where he could not exercise his free will," says Mrs. Lowen.
Fischer and his two sisters packed up and fled Austria, while many of his contemporaries in Viennese society continued attending the opera as usual, and remained contemptuous of politics and convinced their lives would not change. The strength of the Viennese culture, its preoccupation with art and science, to the ignorance of world affairs, was also its downfall.
The refugee Fischers were helped to America by a friend of their grandfather who had emigrated to the United States from Austria years before. The children stayed with the friend's family on Long Island while they were seeking work. Mrs. Lowen and another sister, who now lives in Arizona, eventually became governesses (Mrs. Lowen with the David Sulxherger family, relatives of the New York Times owners). Fischer himself, barely managing to hold onto the little money he had after arriving in New York, moved into the Manhattan YMCA, and, after finding a job, sold some of his personal possessions, and scraped together rental money for an apartment.
Although he was very educated and was taking college courses again, the best position he could find was as a stockboy at Bloomingdale's, for the United States was still pulling out of the Depression.
"Whatever he attained," observes Mrs, Lowen, "he started out right from the bottom and worked his own way up."
For a young man who already was speaking near-flawless English and could converse in French and Italian as well as his native German, who was determined to be something in his new country, Bloomingdale's back room was to be the springboard for his pursuit of the American Dream.
But fate would come to characterize most turning points in Fischer's adult life, and it was fate that enabled him to quit Bloomingdale's and come to Cleveland. The First Baptist Church at Baton Road and Fairmount Boulevard in Cleveland Heights had begun a program to bring to Cleveland displaced persons fleeing Hitler's tyranny. George Reuben Brown, one of the church's leading members and founder and owner of North American Manufacturing Company, agreed to sponsor one of the refugees. He instructed his New York representative to search for someone with an engineering background. That man discovered Fischer through United States immigration authorities and on the spot offered him a job in Cleveland, a city Fischer surely knew nothing about.
But the decision he made that day in 1939 would be a fortuitous one, not only for Fischer but for Cleveland and the First Baptist Church. Young Hans packed up almost the next day, said goodbye to New York, family and friends and boarded a train for the Terminal Tower.
He worked as a draftsman for North American, an industrial combustion equipment manufacturer near East 71st Street and Harvard Avenue, but resigned after two years over a personality clash with the chief engineer, a German immigrant. Fischer might have been a greenhorn, but even at his young age he was not to be intimidated.
"Mr. Brown [now deceased] was really proud that Hans had the initiative to strike out on his own," recalls retired North American president Norman Davies.
Fischer moved on to engineering jobs at McCann Furnace and Fairchild Engineering and, in early 1942, while living in a small East Side apartment, he met Mary Whitmore. The daughter of a Nelsonville, Ohio, florist and greenhouse operator, she was living with an aunt in East Cleveland while attending business college and working as a private secretary. The pair had introduced at a social club at the First Baptist Church.
By the early 1940s, Fischer had shucked off his Catholic upbringing and had become a devoted member of the Baptist Church which had brought him to Cleveland and changed his life. It was the successor church to the one that John D. Rockefeller had contributed so generously to while still living here. And as Fischer's career unfolded, it would be obvious that the two devout Baptists had more than that one similarity.
In November 1942, with World War II in full swing, Fischer married Mary Whitmore in Nelsonville and came back to Cleveland to join the Army.
"More than anything else, he wanted to be an American citizen," says his second oldest son, Larry, "and so he enlisted in the Army."
Citizenship was automatically conferred by joining the armed forces, hastening the naturalization process that otherwise often took several years.
The Army took the aspiring new American as a buck private and promoted him to corporal while he served in the Corps of Engineers, building supply roads in India. Although he had been weakened by a bout of malaria in the Indian jungles, he already showed signs of the brilliance and ambition he would demonstrate later in business. He even invented a kind of makeshift sawmill that could easily be assembled and taken apart under combat conditions. The Army, recognizing his leadership qualities, hustled him back to America and to Officer's Candidate School. He emerged a second lieutenant and finished out the war at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, analyzing intelligence and research documents.
After the war, he joined Joy Manufacturing as senior engineer in the New Philadelphia plant for a salary of $7,000 a year, a job he found through a service buddy. But Fischer's drive could hardly be satisfied in a small central Ohio town in a little plant. Bored, he came back to Cleveland and went to Republic Steel, and, in less than a year and before he was 30 years old, he was chief of the open hearth furnace, one of Republic's top engineering positions.
Although a rising star at Republic Steel, Fischer still longed, now more than ever, to run his own company. He was convinced he could never be an outstanding success in the regular chain-of-command corporate structure, which he found stifling. He wanted to give the orders, not take them.
"All engineers dream of being autonomous operators and being in business for themselves," he told a newspaper reporter who interviewed him in 1957, about his reasons for forming his own company. Even before the war, he had confided, he was thinking of striking out on his own. He believed that many large corporations were doomed because they thwarted new ideas.
"What entraps business people today is while they're young they had evolved a pattern of doing things that was successful," he was quoted in a Plain Dealer Sunday supplement article only a few years ago, at the crest of his success. "And as they get older, they are reluctant to change, so they will try harder to do more of the same, which will create less and less results . . . and companies do this all the time and fade out of the picture. . .
"Republic Steel is a good example locally. They think they are in the steel business ... they are in the materials business and don't know it. And steel is slowly going to phase out. It has to, because it's a bad material. ... Steel is the kind of material that wants to go back to the soil ... so eventually we will evolve materials that are uniquely designed to accomplish tasks that they were intended for.
"But each one of the executives today, all his life was in the steel business and he did not see the change ... so they will be ... a holding company which has a lot of money but no more place in our economy."
Fischer's outspoken views seemed incisive and visionary to some, but others found them superficial and sarcastic. Whatever, this glibness both enticed and repelled those who came in contact with the ambitious businessman.
"Hans would give anyone an argument," notes Dr. Victor deWoIfe, a Cleveland Clinic surgeon, who knew Fischer nearly 30 years. "He was very knowledgeable on many subjects and enjoyed people who could intellectually spar with him."
Unquestionably, those who did not want to spar with him were the Republic Steel executives. While still the chief open hearth engineer, and barely into his 30s, Fischer formed a part-time engineering consulting firm, using $4,000 in savings to open an office and meeting his early payrolls by borrowing short-term money from loan companies. Going first-class from the start, a characteristic which distinguished him all his life, Fischer hired the city's largest law firm, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, to handle the early legal work of the promising new company. This was the same prestigious firm he would be forced to call on in the most unexpected way in later years.
In any case, the new undertaking made increasing demands on his time, and the Republic hierarchy forced him to make a decision: "full-time with us or with your own company."
Yet even before the showdown, Fischer's decision was a fait accompli. By 1953, with a new office building — the Fischer Building — at East 52nd Street and Euclid Avenue, Fischer & Associates already had a number of partners and loyal employees. Among them was Fischer's devoted personal secretary, Mrs. Kathryn Winbigler, who, like his law firm, would play an important role in his destiny some 25 years later.
Before the 1950s closed, Fischer & Associates had some 200 engineers working part- or full-time, and the firm was selling more than $2 million annually in services to scores of Cleveland s blue-chip corporations.
Fischer & Associates revolutionized engineering practices in Cleveland, making Fischer himself extraordinarily successful but drawing the jealousy and antagonism of others in the staid profession who were unnerved by his unorthodox practices.
Fischer simply pushed into a vacuum in a languishing profession with almost blinding speed. His concept was simple enough: He employed engineers and "rented" them to other companies who needed temporary skills for a particular long- or short-term job. His specialty was the design of industrial material handling systems which demanded custom design services. With the post-war growth, with a touch of imagination in an unimaginative profession, Fischer seemed to be at the right place at the right time.
But he was not only an engineer; he was inventor and marketing director as well. He concerned himself with every aspect of the business, even advertising his services (anathema to engineers at the time), and involving himself even in the choice of layout, copy and color for the direct mail advertisements.
"We're not in the business to advance the profession," he was quoted in those years as saying. "We're in business to make money."
And like other penurious immigrants who came to America to make their fortunes, Fischer also wanted the material trappings of status and success. This was evident even in the early fifties. After the war, he had purchased a house on Stock-bridge Avenue in the Lee-Harvard area in the southeast corner of the city. It was a neighborhood of postage-stamp lawns and bungalows inhabited by first-, second- and third-generation Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Italians, Slovaks and Czechs. But like other blue-collar enclaves of the city, it was on the brink of social and racial change.
A longtime Fischer friend who asked not to be quoted by name tells this story: "One night in the early fifties, Hans attended a neighborhood meeting called to plot strategy over the matter of blacks moving in. The residents were adamant, they would not sell to blacks. But he knew better. He knew change was inevitable and foresaw the economic realities it would bring. He had nothing against blacks, but the next day he went out and put his house up for sale."
By 1953, his children had a full-time nurse and the family was living in a stately, seven-bedroom Tudor house on Shaker Boulevard in Shaker Heights, in a neighborhood philosophically and socio-economically further away from Lee-Harvard than his native Vienna. It was a quantum social jump.
But if the Fischers were someday to hire help to do for them what they once did for themselves, most people who knew them in Cleveland over the years insist that they never entirely lost the common touch, particularly Mrs. Fischer.
Laura Cole, a real estate saleswoman who tried to sell the Fischers their Shaker Heights house, recalls meeting frequently with Mrs. Fischer on Stockbridge Avenue. "She was a lovely lady then," says Ms. Cole, "just as friendly and caring as she could be. I can see her now, with her hair in a bandana, carrying a pail, mopping the floor, playing with the kids. I was awfully fond of her."
Fischer had made the big leap to Shaker Heights with relative ease but he was not abandoning the institution which had made possible his initial success. He headed the fund raising drive in the early fifties to build a new education wing on the First Baptist Church. His company designed the building and in his spare time he personally supervised the construction. Later he served as chairman of the church's board of trustees. Mrs. Fischer herself took an active interest in Baptist affairs, volunteering at the church's senior citizen home, Judson Park.
"Anytime I would call either of them, they would give us a hand," notes Dr. Russell Bishop, former pastor of the First Baptist Church, now living in Florida. "They gave of their time as well as their money. They were very loyal to their church and 100 per cent honest. They were dependable. Just like a rock."
By the mid-fifties, Fischer already seemingly had fulfilled the promise of the American Dream. He was not yet 40 but rich by anyone's standards. The stockboy from Bloomingdale's was recognized as a pillar of his church, a proud and dutiful citizen, a major philanthropic contributor. His wife was active in numerous charitable causes. His children were enrolled in the best private schools. The family lived in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America.
But men who forge mighty industrial combines are seldom content. Fischer certainly was not.
Although his rent-an-engineer concept was innovative, he realized that vast wealth could only be attained in industrial manufacturing. And to that end, in the mid-fifties, he incorporated Fischer Industries, which would later serve as a holding company for the second phase of his organizational expansion.
The fifties were years of steady growth for the American economy and for Fischer's enterprises, but the sixties were perhaps the most fertile years for American business in this century, the last expansionist, guns-and-butter, pre-inflationary, pre-regulatory days of untroubled capitalism. And Fischer seized on the sixties like a man possessed of his dream.
He begged and borrowed the down payment, even using the mortgage on his Euclid Avenue office building as leverage to buy Mayfran, a small manufacturer of material handling systems with offices and plant on the East Side. Perhaps the company owners believed that such systems were outmoded and that they were dumping a white elephant on Fischer, for he bought Mayfran in 1960 for not much more than $1 million. But material handling was his forte.
"The reason they were not successful," he counseled Donald Bibbo, who rose steadily through Mayfran ranks from a blueprint boy until Fischer appointed him president, "is that they never marketed the company properly."
Fischer obviously did.
In fact, he did for material handling what Henry Ford did for the automobile. Although material handling systems must be custom made to fit the particular needs of the factory or warehouse, Fischer himself designed such systems using standard, interchangeable parts. He sold his products to some of the biggest industrial corporations in the nation. Fischer could be relied upon to meet the price quoted and guarantee the work. "If you make a deal," he reminded Bibbo from time to time, "no matter how it hurts, carry it out. If you make changes, make them beforehand."
Fischer excelled in every aspect of the business. He knew how to promote and sell his product, overwhelming a client with his knowledge, then sizing up the particular need, designing the quality machinery at a low cost and finally making the sale, at a hefty profit.
He continued to make heavy use of direct mail advertising to preferred clients and potential customers, much as he did with his engineering consulting firm. "We might have to spend 90 cents to make a dollar," he would explain to his executives, "but we are going to make a lot of dollars."
Fischer was complex in his personal and social dealings, and on the job he also could be highly unpredictable. One afternoon, for instance, he found that a pin machine — a kind of conveyor belt system — was not functioning at his Mayfran plant. He unhooked the vital parts, took them to his office, shut the door and did not emerge until 10 hours later with the machine repaired.
He was also temperamental in handling employees. Although he had a handful of loyal longtime executives who stuck by him because he allowed them to participate in company decisions, he had trouble recruiting many others because of his reputation as a demanding boss. Managers came and departed over the years, intimidated by Fischer's curt, hard-driving style.
He rarely paid more than minimum union wages to his laborers, but also had somewhat of a paternalistic attitude toward them. He would send them a $10 check and card on their birthdays and offer them a choice of a ham or turkey at Christmas.
But perhaps it was the hard side of him, this seeming intolerance for persons beneath his intellectual capabilities, that would cause him problems socially over the years. Or perhaps it was simple prejudice.
By 1962 Mayfran was already highly profitable, and Fischer himself was gaining a reputation as a successful entrepreneur. But at 44, he seemed to want not only the material adornments but the social status that his professional position should bring.
Thus in November of that year he purchased a five-acre lot in Daisy Hill, an exclusive, affluent, platted WASP enclave in Hunting Valley where some of the best names in Cleveland industry, law and medicine live. In terms of the status pyramid, Daisy Hill in the early 1960s was at the tip. And that is where Fischer believed he deserved to be.
But building a house in Daisy Hill or being accepted apparently then (and presumably now) demands more than just money. A Daisy Hill Neighborhood Committee has the power to approve or disapprove new buildings, depending on whether the plans meet certain restrictive codes. These include the size and shape of the house, its distance from the road, even the contour of the landscaping. The committee also has the authority to determine if one qualities for a permit to hook onto the water system.
And this Daisy Hill Neighborhood Committee covenant can still be found in the Cuyahoga County Recorder's deedbooks, although similar ones were struck down years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court:
No sublot shall be sold, rented, leased, used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of African descent or any person not of the White or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants employed by any owner, tenant or lessee of any sublet. No part of said sublet shall be sold, rented, leased, used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person without first having obtained the written consent of the Neighborhood Committee ...
Fischer was simply told he was not wanted in Daisy Hill. Not being the kind who would make his mortifying experience public, he turned the property over to his land management company, which some years later sold it to a family found more acceptable by the Daisy Hill folks.
(While this incid
12:00 AM EST
December 22, 2010