TORONTO – Max Guttmann, who embodies the Canadian corporate dream, will face a major adjustment in giving up something he started from scratch.
A destitute Holocaust survivor, he came to Canada, worked 100 hours a week to build Algood Casters, now a lucrative company, and then turned it over to his kids this year on the firm’s 25th anniversary. For Guttmann, it’s been a life of hope and hardship, of sacrifice and success.
One of the Guttmann sons, 30-year-old Craig, Algood’s new president, remembers wishing to see more of his dad.
“Very often he would never come home for days, because he would be sleeping in the factory. “
Guttmann himself admits to putting in punishing hours, with days running into nights on the factory floor. “I used to work from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.,” he recalls.
Guttmann was born 62 years ago in Czechoslovakia and moved to Hungary at the age of 3. In 1943, Hungary’s Nazi occupiers kicked him out of school. He was 11 at the time, with four years of formal education, which to this day is the extent of his schooling. When the war was over, Guttmann was one of the fortunate survivors, who had somehow been spared because his parents had placed him in an orphanage.
“I was 12 1/2 years old. They asked for children who wanted to help, so I volunteered,” he says.
Volunteering meant learning a trade -die making and machine building, courtesy of ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation & Training).
Six years later, with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, he was on his way to Toronto, where finding work, by today’s standards, was unbelievably easy. He accepted his first job offer the day he arrived.
Toronto in the early 50s was an intolerant town. Employers, private clubs, and landlords thought nothing of barring Jews. Discrimination was standard procedure.
When Guttmann became the first Jew to be hired at Massey Harris, later to become Massey Ferguson, one of North America’s major farm machinery manufacturers, he made labor history. But being accepted by his fellow workers wasn’t so simple. Guttmann had taken off for Yom Kippur and returned to the taunting of a factory colleague who expressed regret about not having killed more Jews in Europe. His reaction was furiously instinctive.
“I picked up a hammer and started swinging until somebody stopped me.”
Although Guttmann kept his job and the anti-Semite was transferred, other unpleasant incidents followed. One of the factory foremen threatened to fire him unless he could complete a specially designed task in a seemingly impossible amount of time.
“You little Jew boy,” Guttmann remembers the foreman saying, “you won’t finish the job. You’ll get your ass kicked out of here.” The result? “I finished the job in half the time.”
Diverse Product Range
Craig Guttmann believes the persistent anti-Semitism his father faced prevented him from “sitting back while others were suffering and dying.” His father joined several groups sponsoring Vietnamese boat people so they could come to Canada. He personally brought over one worker who is still employed at Algood.
Guttmann is, in fact, a soft touch for charitable causes. The list of recipients is long – Shearim Hebrew Day School, which teaches children with learning difficulties; Netivot HaTorah Day School; Or Chaim Yeshiva; the Mizrachi Zionist organization; Beit Halochem for wounded Israeli soldiers; ORT and many more. By 1961, with a succession of employers behind him and $3,400 to start a new company, Guttmann and partner Keith Alexander created A & G Dies, Algood’s predecessor. When Although consumers tend to take casters on their furniture and shopping carts for granted, Guttmann never believed business would automatically come his way. He would load his car with casters at any time of the day for personal deliveries to clients, and he loved victory over imported casters based on price -the one significant selling point of his product.
When Algood was a less than prosperous corporate infant, there were two customers and $32,000 in annual sales. Today, Algood, 50 employees and 65,000 square feet later, serves over 700 customers, with coast-to-coast distributorships and sales in the millions. And whether it’s 1969 or 1994, when it comes to customers, some things never change. “We spoil them rotten,” Guttmann observes.
It’s this personal pride, this “hands-on careful control,” as Guttman describes it, that has allowed Algood to not just survive but flourish during the recession. Even before economic conditions deteriorated, Algood stopped concentrating primarily on the furniture market and diversified its product range.
“That way, when one market excelled, we felt it. When one market was depressed, we dido ‘t,” Craig observes.
In December 1990, Algood asked employees to forego raises and bonuses. They complied, saved their jobs, and helped to pilot Algood through the economic storm.
Now, Algood is after the benefits of free trade. Already, 25 per cent of its business comes from the United States, which Craig considers untapped territory, and the company just picked up a Mexican customer.
With a solid sales base, a gigantic product line (some 25,000 caster variations) and 20 per cent growth expected this year, Algood is moving on to the next generation -sons Mark, Craig and Sean, with Craig running the company.
Why semi-retirement today, for Guttman and his wife Sheila when the founder and first president is only 62? The answer from Guttmann himself is typically practical and blunt.
“I want the company taken over when I’m still alive and still active to see the pleasure of them running it.”
Published by the CJN on March 17, 1994