Wheel Man

For decades, C.S. Mott was the single largest individual shareholder at General Motors Co. His agile and prudent management remain an example for the auto industry.
C.S. Mott speaking with child
Mott built an estate on 65 acres in Flint called Applewood. Named for an apple orchard, today it is open for public tours. // Courtesy of the Ruth Mott Foundation/Applewood

Weston-Mott Co. in Utica, N.Y., had enjoyed a period of modest growth as a manufacturer of spoked steel wheels when in 1902 its young leader, Charles Stewart Mott, received bad news from Packard Motor Car Co. in Detroit. The automaker had decided to use wood wheels rather than Mott’s steel offerings. “I was left with responsibility of a factory and payroll, and very little business or income,” said Mott, who was 27 years old.

Trained as a mechanical engineer at Stevens Institute of Technology, Mott hastily canvassed his family company’s clientele. “The crisis called for complete retooling and reinvention of the firm’s production,” writes Edward Renehan in “The Life of Charles Stewart Mott: Industrialist, Philanthropist, Mr. Flint.”

Mott did more than produce blueprints and work out prototypes with his machinists. He also diversified into axles and “quite audaciously took orders for an enormous amount of trade.” Before long, he had captured new orders from Oldsmobile (founded as Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in 1897) and wooed the fledgling Cadillac Automobile Co., which had pre-sold 2,286 examples of its Model A at the New York Auto Show.

“Finally we got going,” Mott recalled, “and (we) made money to buy more machinery to make more axles, and to make more money to buy more machinery to make even more axles.”

In 1906, benefiting from an irresistible package of incentives including a free site for a 60,000-square-foot plant — enough space, Renehan notes, for 400 machines and nearly as many men — Mott moved the company to Flint in order to be at the industry’s core. He welcomed his friend Alfred P. Sloan, of Hyatt Roller Bearing Co., on monthly visits from New Jersey.

Sloan, who went on to preside over GM for decades, marked Weston-Mott’s move as “the first step in the integration of the automobile industry.” In fiscal year 1908-1909, the supplier made a profit of more than $500,000 on gross receipts above $2 million.

When GM formed in 1908 around Buick and Olds, it acquired 49 percent of Weston-Mott through a stock swap. The rest was transferred in 1913. Overall, Mott accumulated an $800-million fortune. Although he previously declined to join GM’s board, he did so in 1913, and his practicality was vital to the corporation.

Taking a dim view of GM founder Billy Durant’s incautious ways, Mott recalled, “He was one hell of a gambler. To this day, I don’t know how he was able to handle it financially, but he did.”

Another facet of Mott’s life was devoted to politics and philanthropy. Running for Flint mayor at the head of the Independent Citizens Party, he swept to victory over a Socialist candidate in 1912. Improving the sewer system, paving roads, and purchasing park property topped the new mayor’s agenda.

Mott was re-elected in 1913 to what he called “another year’s sentence at hard labor.” After losing in 1914, he won a third term in 1918 and then campaigned unsuccessfully as a Republican for the Michigan governorship.

Meanwhile, he developed his Applewood estate on East Kearsley Street in Flint and launched his namesake charitable foundation, which by 2016 had dispensed $3 billion in grants to such institutions as the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

Two of Mott’s least-known acts have a special poignancy. In 1938 he “loaned” $30,000 to Durant after his Raymere estate in New Jersey was lost to bankruptcy. Later, at Sloan’s behest, Mott contributed $2,500 a year to Durant’s upkeep until the founder’s death in 1947. Mott, who was 72, kept on ticking, serving on GM’s board until his long and productive life ended in 1973.

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