Toolmaker innovator Decker Jr. dead at 94

Black & Decker chief helped spark do-it-yourself trend

March 19, 2002|By Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen | Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Alonzo G. Decker Jr., the engineer who conceived and led a weekend revolution waged with do-it-yourself power tools, died yesterday of heart failure at Money Point Farm, his home on the Sassafras River near Cecilton. He was 94.

In his seven decades with Black & Decker Corp. - the business co-founded by his father in 1910 - he was credited with driving a movement that saw consumers spend their Saturdays doing chores around the house with his drills, saws, hedge trimmers and DustBusters.

Mr. Decker liked to tell the story that he was on to a trend when World War II defense workers were stealing his industrial power drills. They took the drills, then not available at local hardware stores, to do home improvements.

In 1961, he introduced a cordless, battery-powered drill - the first of a type widely sold today. His innovations within the industry spawned libraries of magazines, boosted sales at hardware chains and occasioned the television comedy series Home Improvement. His power drill was used to take core samples of the moon's surface during an Apollo mission.

"He was the outstanding chief executive officer in the company's history," said Charles Costa, Black & Decker vice president for administration. "He took sales from $100 million to $650 million and changed the way people do their work around the house."

"Mr. Decker was a great, great business leader of the 20th century," said Nolan D. Archibald, Black & Decker's chairman and chief executive officer. "As a businessman, engineer, innovator, civic leader and philanthropist, he set a standard that few can hope to match. He was a man of high personal morals who had an international vision. We now have 35 percent of sales outside the U.S. He was the driver for our global expansion."

"He was one of my favorite people, totally down to earth, and he never showed off any kind of his wealth," said Steven Muller, former president of the Johns Hopkins University, where Mr. Decker was a trustee for 34 years. "He was a man of simple tastes, very modest, who was firm in what he believed in."

Mr. Decker, who stepped down as a Black & Decker director a little more than a year ago, was 14 when he began working for the business - founded as Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. on South Calvert Street, between Lombard and Water streets, by Alonzo G. "Lon" Decker Sr. and S. Duncan Black.

Born in Orangeville, a community off East Monument Street then in Baltimore County, he was raised on Stevenson Lane near Towson. He was a graduate of Polytechnic Institute and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University in 1929.

In 1930, he went to work for the company's export department and demonstrated a rotary car polisher in the Soviet Union just as the Depression was beginning to have an effect on business.

Near the end of that year, he was summoned to his father's office and told that he was going to be the first employee laid off. In tough financial times, his father did not want to give the appearance of nepotism.

Mr. Decker then worked selling soap flakes to grocery stores for $8 a week, and when he was hired back by the company, it was as a floor sweeper for 25 cents an hour. He worked briefly in the sales department before shifting to manufacturing in 1933.

He was promoted to vice president in 1940, the same year he joined the board, and was the chief executive officer from 1964 to 1975, and chairman of the board until 1978. He resigned from the board Dec. 31, 2000.

In a 1997 Sun interview, Mr. Decker recalled that the Blacks were in sales and marketing, while the Deckers were in engineering and invention. "I don't know who planned that. But it worked," he said.

It was the 1940s when he observed that a defense contractor was ordering more and more power drills.

"Are they breaking down?" Mr. Decker asked.

"No, they are disappearing. Women are taking them home in their lunch baskets," he was told.

Mr. Decker said he replied, "When females are taking drills home, we ought to be making something just for the home."

After the war, Mr. Decker and his engineering department brought out the Home Utility Line - electric drills, drill bit sets, portable circular saws, jig saws and sanders.

"His sense of competition was ferocious," said Joe Galli, a former Black & Decker executive who is now Newell Rubbermaid's chief executive officer. "His determination and his tenacity were legendary. He had a passion for the product, for technology and for winning."

Mr. Decker was a believer in education and gave much of his personal wealth to the state's colleges and universities.

From 1973 to 1976, Mr. Decker chaired the Hopkins 100, the school's centennial giving campaign that raised $112 million to endow 100 professorships. At the time it was considered one of the most successful drives of its type in the country.

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