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An Empire Fades Away, but Its Legacy Lingers On : Final Chapter Is Being Written for What Once Was West's Greatest Industrial Power

August 04, 1985|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | Times Staff Writer

In the San Francisco office of Touche Ross, accountants are working on calculations that they hope will lead to the perfect zero. When they succeed--and they must no later than Nov. 30--they will have written the final balance on what once was the greatest industrial empire in the western United States.

It has been nearly five years since the task of parceling out Kaiser Industries' remaining $20 million of assets was assigned to the accounting firm. Every six months since then it has sent out checks to former Kaiser Industries shareholders. The last checks go out this fall.

And that will be that. For many of the former Kaiser shareholders, it is anticlimactic; the checks might pay their utility bills for a month, maybe two. More than 90% of the company's assets were distributed between 1977, when Kaiser Industries voluntarily began its breakup, and 1980, when the liquidating trustees handed the leftovers to Touche Ross.

But to others--among them the heirs and former associates of Henry J. Kaiser--the final check will be the bittersweet reminder of what was, or what could have been.

"The main thing that was lost is the sense of being part of something greater than yourself. No question, there was excitement at being part of the Kaiser name and heritage," Henry Mead Kaiser, grandson of Henry J. Kaiser, said in an interview. "In its heyday, it was very exciting. . . . It was such a dynamic and powerful base from which to build, I just hate to see it not continue."

By itself, Kaiser Industries wasn't much. It was, rather, more of a device, formed in 1956, to bind together the diverse pieces of Kaiser's unraveling empire--an empire that once crisscrossed the globe on sturdy legs of steel, cement and aluminum.

Its companies built ships, autos, dishwashers and even kitchen sinks. They engineered or constructed steel plants, bridges, roads and dams. They mined and refined coal, iron ore, magnesium and half a dozen other minerals. They had tens of thousands of employees in dozens of states and foreign countries. They built houses that sheltered as many others and they provided health care for hundreds of thousands more.

And, historians believe, the creation of Henry J. Kaiser's empire was the pivotal event in the industrialization of the West.

"More than any other individual person, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser was responsible for the wartime industrial boom in the West," University of New Mexico history professor Gerald D. Nash wrote in his 1973 book, "The American West in the 20th Century."

The recent malaise of smokestack industries in the United States has led historians and economists back to that wartime boom in search of ways to rekindle industrial growth. And, Nash said in a telephone interview, that search leads to Kaiser as a premiere example of "the transformation of an economy."

Henry J. Kaiser's accomplishments stretched the label "industrialist" to new dimensions. Many men built bigger single companies or made more money than Kaiser, but nobody ever created such a broad collection of companies. He was tireless, a man of vision and spirit; many times he ventured into fields in which he had no practical knowledge. His companies' expansion often was underwritten by a federal government desperate for wartime goods, and executed by masses of unskilled and often minority workers.

Although the bulk of his companies was based on heavy industries--and since have been caught on the downward slide of those industries--he also began businesses in aerospace, electronics and broadcasting. Had he lived long enough, some say, he would have ventured into high technology and other growth industries.

But the empire's momentum stalled when the second generation, a collection of bright, competent managers, took over the companies, Nash said. Under the leadership of Henry's elder son, Edgar F. Kaiser Sr., many of the firms participated in worldwide industrial expansion, but seldom strayed from their main lines of business.

"What happened to the Kaiser companies is what happened to the American economy: too much concern with internal management and not enough with striking out in new directions," Nash said. Whereas Henry Kaiser "was flexible, imaginative and daring," too many corporations have been bogged down by short-term concerns and "managerial smugness."

Bitter Office Politics

Others agree that Henry J. Kaiser was the spark and that the companies never again ran as smoothly after he semi-retired in the early 1950s and officially stepped down in 1959. In the ensuing years, insiders say, Kaiser Industries was caught up in bitter office politics, stodgy bureaucracy and an inability to cut its losses and move on.

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