The Passing of the Torch
The year 1910 was a pivotal one for Johnson & Johnson. The company was doing well and growing, with a variety of product lines that included medicated plasters, sterile surgical dressings and sutures, but also products for women’s health, baby products, hygiene and personal care products, and more. Robert Wood Johnson was president of the company, and with his brother James, Fred Kilmer and others, he steered the direction of Johnson & Johnson. From the time he was five years old, Robert Wood Johnson’s eldest son Robert had accompanied his father to business meetings.
Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. as a Child
Throughout his childhood, Robert had continued to visit his father’s factories and offices. He had a serious temperament and was very interested in the workings of the business, the products made there, and the workers, and he asked a lot of questions that the staff was happy to answer.
Company Founder Robert Wood Johnson
Robert Wood Johnson the first had always enjoyed good health, so it was unusual when he left work early on January 31, 1910, complaining of not feeling well. When he felt too ill to attend the company’s annual stockholders meeting the following day, everyone knew that something was seriously wrong. (Johnson & Johnson didn’t become a publicly traded company until 1944, so a stockholders meeting in those days consisted of the company’s top management.) Johnson’s family physician visited Gray Terrace several times before announcing that Johnson had of Janeway and Carpender wallpaper plant fame -- were another prominent New Brunswick family, and Dr. Janeway had been the consulting physician to Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. Here’s a picture of Dr. Janeway and a little more information about him. Unfortunately, all the two doctors could do was to make Johnson comfortable. Robert Wood Johnson died eight days later, on February 7, leaving his wife, his children, and 2,500 employees. His oldest son Robert was 16 years old.
At Johnson & Johnson, the mood was gloomy. Robert Wood Johnson the first was so vigorous, energetic and brimming with ideas that many were not convinced the company would continue to prosper without him. However, Johnson had the foresight to ensure that, besides his brother James, the company had strong managers in place that could continue the business on the same trajectory.
Johnson’s funeral was held on February 9, and it was the largest funeral New Brunswick had seen. Over 1,000 Johnson & Johnson employees gathered at the plant and walked to Gray Terrace to pay their respects – the line stretched from the Johnson house (which was at the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Streets) all the way back to Johnson & Johnson. Members of the city’s civic, religious and charitable organizations also paid their respects. After the funeral service, mourners lined the mile-long route to Elmwood Cemetery. When Johnson’s burial had to be delayed for a few days because the ground was frozen, it was a measure of the respect and loyalty he inspired that a group of his employees formed a 24-hour guard at the temporary vault.
Fred Kilmer wrote a tribute to Johnson that said, in part:
“ ‘When once convinced that an article which he could manufacture would save life and prevent suffering, he caused it to be manufactured and placed before the [medical] profession irrespective of any consideration of profit.’ ” [Robert Wood Johnson, The Gentleman Rebel, by Lawrence G. Foster, p. 109]
If that philosophy about putting patients first sounds vaguely familiar, Johnson’s son Robert would later clarify many of the values he learned from his father into Our Credo.
On February 18, the board of directors named James Wood Johnson as the company’s new president. James, who was quieter and more laid-back than his brother, hastily assured employees that “My policy was my brother’s policy…My brother’s policy is my policy.” [RWJ the Gentleman Rebel, p. 109]
Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Circa 1910
Johnson’s eldest son Robert struggled to adjust to his father’s death. He returned to Rutgers Prep to complete his junior year and in the summer, asked if he could take a job at the factory. Robert bonded with the workers, especially the Hungarian immigrants. He was also living with his uncle James, his mother and siblings having left Gray Terrace for New York. As a result, when Robert graduated from Rutgers Prep, he made a momentous decision: instead of going to college, he wanted to join the company.
More on this story in my next post…