On a cool spring afternoon in 1953 a telephone rang in a small factory loft in Chicago where 26 year old Robert Pritzker, his partner and ten employees manufactured paint rollers. It was the long-awaited call from his older brother, lawyer-investor Jay Pritzker. “Bob, I think I’ve finally found one for you,” Jay told Bob. He had learned from a broker that The Colson Corporation, a northern Ohio company that manufactured bicycles, wheelchairs, casters, and hand trucks as well as other metal products, was for sale.
For as long as he could remember, Bob Pritzker’s ambition was to own and operate a factory. “Let’s look into it,” Bob said in a voice that betrayed his excitement.*
And, thus began what was to become one of the greatest and most respected group of manufacturing and service companies in the history of American business (“The Marmon Group”).
Bob Pritzker was the first engineer in a family of lawyers. He had a knack and a passion for plant management and by the age of twenty-four, before Colson was acquired, had already become general manager of a manufacturing company. When Bob and his brother Jay acquired Colson, they laid the groundwork for a partnership and an organization that would grow by leaps and bounds over the years. For more than fifty years and through hundreds of acquisitions, including the 1980 acquisition of Trans Union Corporation, then one of the oldest and most respected New York Stock Exchange companies, Bob led, nurtured and grew The Marmon Group based on his principles of fairness, honesty and ethical business behavior which he instilled throughout the companies’ worldwide businesses. Beginning with Colson (a company with approximately $3 million of sales when acquired in 1953) Bob built what became the enormously successful privately-held Marmon Group, a group of manufacturing and service companies that spanned the globe with revenues of approximately $7 billion annually by 2001. Truly an amazing achievement! Then at age 75, Bob retired from The Marmon Group and formed a new group of companies (“Colson Associates”) with further astonishing success! But, more on that later.
Bob was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 30, 1926. He passed away on October 27, 2011.
Bob’s father and grandfather (who immigrated to Chicago from Kiev, the Ukraine, at the age of ten in 1881) were successful lawyers and real estate investors. Bob’s two brothers (Jay and Donald) also obtained law degrees but Bob broke the mold and at the young age of 19 graduated with a university degree in industrial engineering. As a young man, Bob delighted in visiting and learning the technologies of manufacturing companies. His business curiosity, operations expertise and knowledge provided the basis for his ability to improve the operating efficiencies of the acquired companies.
The stunning success of The Marmon Group, under Bob’s leadership, reflected his belief in empowering managers who, in his view, can and should be trusted to run the businesses entrusted to them. His attitude and very successful approach to business significantly influenced business methods and his philosophy of decentralized decision making placed reliance upon and granted authority to on-site managers to achieve goals.
Although business and the building of The Marmon Group and then subsequently Colson Associates was his passion, he contributed greatly to society (in addition to the many thousands of meaningful jobs he created). Bob served on many civic and cultural Boards, including the Rush University Medical Center, Lincoln Park Zoological Society, American Enterprise Institute, National Academy of Engineering, National Association of Manufacturers, Junior Achievement International, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Illinois Institute of Technology and The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to name a few. A manufacturing and philanthropic giant, Bob had an extraordinary relationship with the Illinois Institute of Technology since his graduation in 1946 with a degree in industrial engineering. In 1984, in recognition of his then many outstanding contributions and achievements, the University bestowed upon him an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree and in 2002 he was inducted into the University’s Hall of Fame. As Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees for many years, he presided over the reinvigoration of the University, lending his personal leadership, management advice and generous philanthropic support. Bob’s faith in Illinois Institute of Technology and his belief in the importance of educating top-quality engineers led to the creation of the University’s Camras Scholars Program which dramatically strengthened the University’s ability to attract the best and brightest engineering students from around the world.
In early 2002, upon retirement from The Marmon Group, Bob took a handful of caster and hardware companies and a few medical device companies and formed Colson Associates. He then replicated with Colson Associates, in very challenging economic and business environments, the resounding successes that he had achieved with Marmon. Over the ensuing ten year period beginning in early 2002, Bob continued building the Colson Group into both the world’s largest, as well as the world’s most successful, group of caster and hardware companies. Under Bob’s leadership and management, the medical companies grew impressively. Bob’s companies created during this period over 600 meaningful new jobs! Truly outstanding results! What was of great importance to Bob was that his businesses and his employees always meet their commitments and operate on sound business principles with the highest level of fairness, respect and honesty.
Bob’s passion and love for his businesses and his employees continued unabated. Up until his death in 2011, Bob was still deeply involved with the businesses of Colson Associates and was looking forward to seeing the continued future achievements of his companies.
Bob selected people he could trust to run the businesses, people who shared his high ethics, his sense of fairness, and people who understood and shared his principles of doing business. In return, he gave them the ability to run their businesses and he gave them his guidance and nurturing, his friendship and his trust.
Those of us within Colson Associates, those who joined Bob in building The Marmon Group (now owned by Berkshire Hathaway) and the many others who came into contact with Bob, are all privileged and proud to have been associated with Bob Pritzker. His wisdom, guidance, patience, honor, respect and trust, and his warmth and sense of humor is greatly missed and will be long-remembered.
*From “The Making of The Marmon Group” authored by Jack Steinberg, Director of Communications for The Marmon Group, 1976 to 1990.