Lone Wolf at Weirton: Ernest Tener Weir

By Kelly, Eileen P.; Zoric, Joseph A. | Journal of Managerial Issues, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Lone Wolf at Weirton: Ernest Tener Weir


Kelly, Eileen P., Zoric, Joseph A., Journal of Managerial Issues


SMOKE AND STEEL

. . . A bar of steel - it is only Smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man. runner of fire ran in it, ran out, ran somewhere else, And left - smoke and the blood of a man And the finished steel, chilled and blue. So fire runs in, runs out, runs somewhere else again, And the bar of steel is a gun, a wheel, a nail, a shovel, A rudder under the sea, a steering-gear in the sky; And always dark in the heart and through it,

Smoke and the blood of a man. Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Gary - they make their steel with men. In the blood of men and the ink of chimneys The smoke nights write their oaths: Smoke into steel and blood into steel; Homestead, Braddock, Birmingham, they make their steel with men. Smoke and blood is the mix of steel . . .

Carl Sandburg

Ernest Tener Weir was no saint. In public, fellow steelmen called him "difficult." In private, they called him other things (Time, 1941). Organized labor hated him and called him an "evil man" (Fortune, 1945). New Dealers labeled him a black reactionary. In an era where divorce was taboo, Weir had three marriages. Indeed, Ernest Tener Weir was no saint. What, then, was Weir? He was a maverick, a lone wolf, the last of the independent steel industrialists. Through ambition, enterprise, perserverance, and stubbornness, he built National Steel - a major, fully integrated, independent steel corporation that confronted the steel giants of the day and successfully competed with them.

This paper is about Ernest Tener Weir and the impact he left on the steel industry. Weir's legacy to management history is a lasting one and examination of that legacy provides many benefits. First, while the literature in management history is replete with commentaries on presidents of steel colossi such as Benjamin Fairless, Charles White, and Arthur Homer, less emphasis has been placed on independent steel producers and the significant role they played in shaping the steel industry. Ernest Weir was one of the last of those independent producers. Examining Weir's legacy provides new insights on the role of the independent producer in the early steel industry and helps to fill a void in the literature. Second, Weir faced a fierce and turbulent competitive environment. He lived through a period of revolutionary changes in the steel industry. In the early years of his career, the industry was highly fragmented consisting of hundreds of independent producers. At the turn of the century, the industry was rapidly moving towards concentration with most independents either absorbed by the steel giants or crushed by them. Weir was an important transitional figure whose life spanned both eras. Modern managers can learn much by studying Weir's successful competitive strategies employed in besting the steel colossi of the day. Weir's life was a testimony that the "little guy" could not only compete, but come out ahead of his larger competitors. He succeeded in building a fully integrated steel corporation that challenged the mega-producers, and eventually ranked fifth among the Big Eight. Third, studying Weir's legacy can reveal the extent to which one man can influence the course of an entire industry. Time and again, it was the iconoclast Weir who forced changes in the price structure and labor costs in the industry. Finally, Weir left an everlasting imprint in history by creating the city of Weirton, West Virginia, where he employed tens of thousands of steel workers and their descendants for generations.

ENTREE INTO THE STEEL INDUSTRY

Ernest Tener Weir was born on August 1, 1875, in Pittsburgh, the son of James and Margaret Manson Weir. His father operated a livery stable in the Schenly Park area which provided a meager existence for the family. In 1880, the Weirs had a second son, David. When Ernest was fifteen his father died, forcing the boy to quit school and become the sole support of his family. Weir worked as an office boy first at the Braddock Wire Company, and then at the Oliver Wire Company (Current Biography, 1941). …

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