He's still a company man Founder's son: Alonzo G. Decker Jr., son of one of the founders of Black & Decker, helped spark the do-it-yourself movement. As he approaches his 89th birthday, he maintains his connection to the family business.

January 05, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

One day in the 1940s, when defense contractors ordered still more Black & Decker Corp. drills, Alonzo G. Decker Jr. was perplexed.

"Are they breaking down?" asked Decker, then the company's vice president of manufacturing and engineering.

"No, they're disappearing," someone replied. "Women are taking them home in their lunch baskets."

Decker voiced his reaction to the company's board: "When females are taking drills home we ought to be making something just for the home."

Black & Decker, of course, did.

About 50 years later, Decker, the son of the Towson company's co-founder, can claim more than fatherhood of the do-it-yourself movement -- a movement that has spawned racks of magazines, huge hardware store chains and even a top-rated television comedy.

At a time when few companies founded in Baltimore remain linked to their founders -- if alive at all -- Decker and the company his father founded stand out.

Last year alone, Parks Sausage Co., founded in Baltimore by Henry Parks in 1951, almost disappeared before it was bought by former football star Franco Harris. In nearby Sparks, Charles P. "Buzz" McCormick Jr., the grandnephew of McCormick & Co. Inc.'s founder, relinquished his CEO title. And PHH Corp., the Hunt Valley company founded in Baltimore, will soon be bought by a New Jersey company.

But to the surprise of many -- including the company's new hires -- Black & Decker still has a Decker.

Two weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Alonzo G. "Al" Decker Jr., likely holds more than one record for corporate longevity.

Early start

As a toddler, Al Decker napped weekends on his father's desk at the company's Calvert Street factory in Baltimore. He began working for the company as a high school kid, after it had moved to Towson. During the Great Depression, he was the first employee let go by his father and, later, the first hired back. He joined the company's board in 1940 and served as its CEO from 1964 to 1975. Still a member of the company's board, Al Decker is the final link to the company's founding families, or as he says, "the last of the tribe." Decker long ago departed from the day-to-day operations of Black & Decker. He now lives full time at the Money Point Farm near Cecilton, 400 acres where two converted farm cottages constitute a friendly yellow lodge that overlooks the Sassafras River.

But Decker, who used Money Point as a weekend retreat during his years as CEO, keeps busy. Ask Decker if he hunts on his property like many of his friends. "Hell, yes," he says.

He still works every Tuesday and Wednesday at the company's headquarters. He and his wife, Virginia, commute and spend evenings at a Towson condominium.

Still engineering

Still, as ever, Decker remains an engineer. He spends much of his time grafting fruit trees, placing branches from healthy plants into unhealthy ones to help them blossom.

Decker explains his vitality as a matter of physics and gravity.

"My normal weight was always 165," he said. "But when I turned 70 or thereabouts, my weight started going down. I now weigh 127 pounds. I don't have much to carry, so it's easy for me to get around."

Decker's aptitude for engineering is a powerful argument for genes. His father, Alonzo G. "Lon" Decker, who had a seventh-grade education, connected an alarm clock to a stable hopper as a child in Orangeville. When the alarm rang, the hopper opened and fed horses -- so he wouldn't have to wake up. In one of his first jobs, he buried himself in the Pratt Library to study watchmaking and emerged as the inventor of the taxicab meter.

Division of labor

The senior Decker met S. Duncan Black in 1906, when both men were 23 and employed by Rowland Telegraph Co. Four years later, in 1910, they started the Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. Through the tenures of two Blacks and two Deckers, the company's formula remained the same: The Blacks were sales and marketing, the Deckers were engineering and innovation.

"I don't know who planned that," Al Decker said. "But it worked."

On Saturdays and Sundays, the senior Decker took his son to the company's factory while his wife took care of their daughter. "My whole life really started at Black & Decker and has been with it ever since," Al Decker said.

Before high school, young Al Decker decided to be an engineer. Naturally, he wanted to attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation's premier engineering schools. Since he lived in Towson, in Baltimore County, he had to pay.

"I rode an hour on the streetcar there and an hour back," he recalled.

The rewards were great, Decker said. The school's director, an alumnus of Cornell University's engineering school, one of the best in the country, steered Decker to the college.

Charted course

For as long as Decker can remember, working for Black & Decker was inevitable. At Cornell, where recruiters swarmed on graduating engineers, Decker didn't interview with anybody.

"What are you going to do when you get out of here?" his friends asked.

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