The Civil War in America took place between 1861 and 1865 and was as you probably know between Union troops and the Confederate. In those short number of years around 600,000 people died. At the end of this war Elgin was formed in 1864 in the town of Elgin in Illinois. Leading on from that this company went on to make millions of watches.
The secret to Elgin’s success was the process that they developed and used so as they could produce these watches in bulk, and because of that make them affordable to the mass general public. Until that point owing a watch or having any form of timepiece was something that was exclusive to the rich and wealthy.
The Elgin Company introduced this system and although mass production appears obvious in today’s highly industrial world, back at the end of the Civil War, very few companies had any notion of how this could be achieved. By formatting processes, making watch parts a standard size and shape, and by using machines Elgin were able to break through many barriers and produce good solid quality at prices the man on the street could actually afford.
The Introduction of Spare Parts
Even the simple notion of being able to provide spare parts for watches was something that was introduced by Elgin. Again in today’s modern world this may seem very obvious, but back in 1865 that was quite literally unheard of. So the founders of Elgin could be classed as being innovators in their time and we have all gone on to benefit since then.
In the early 1920s Elgin made at least half of all the watches made in the USA. That is certainly a huge share of the market, and one they continued to dominate for many years. For me one of the most interesting elements of this strategy was that they also never lost sight of the importance of quality and appearance. They knew that if people were going to buy a timepiece, they would want it to look good and most importantly be able to keep an accurate time.
Elgin managed not only to mass produce but they never lost sight of these two important factors. That is what made then such a success story. They combined a high skill level of workers with machinery and end to end processes. That may sound simplistic but there is a lot more to their success than just that. When you have leaders with a vision who can develop some of the wonderful watches that Elgin produced, then this type of visionary leadership is what can drive and change an industry.
Elgin Factory and College
The Elgin Company also built and developed a factory and at its peak employed over 4,000 people with the majority of staff being women. They also opened a college so as the skills could be developed and carried on throughout the generations. These types of investments allowed them to grow, develop and innovate. Over the years this college taught 1,800 men to become experts in the watch making trade.
When others refused to invest in their people and workers, Elgin did the opposite, and of course they reaped the rewards for doing just that. That college closed in 1960 and has since been knocked down. That is a shame in my opinion as it could have been a great museum today. In fact many businesses could have learned a lot from the practises that went on there.
This college was not just a place for theory and it was more like an apprenticeship, where not only did they attend lectures, but were also very hands on in the production of parts and then assembly. It was also a college of innovation where the latest methods could be discovered and taught. I have no doubt that this would have given the Elgin Company a huge advantage over their competition at that time.
I often wonder in today’s busy commercial world do we really take enough time to understand what other successful companies did back in the day? Now for sure Elgin did go out of business but they also lasted for 100 years. Despite the research that I have done the only answer I can find for their demise was the introduction of cheaper labour in other countries.
Clearly though they forgot to change, and when you do that, or do not do it quickly enough there are enough hungry competitors out there who will quickly take the market share. Yet again that is a lesson for many people in business.