From the time he was 3 years old, entrepreneur Al Weatherhead III thought he would grow up to run his father’s auto and military parts empire. Thirty-eight years and a Harvard Business School degree later, he realized that wasn’t going to happen. In 1966, he bought a $400,000 plastics manufacturing company in Twinsburg and built it into Weatherchem Corp. Thanks mostly to an innovation called the Flapper — a ubiquitous plastic lid found on everything from spice bottles to pet food containers — Weatherchem has sales of $25 million to $30 million a year.
But Weatherhead is probably best known for his philanthropic work as head of the Weatherhead Foundation. His family’s name appears prominently on the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, which has a titanium-clad roller coaster of a building designed by superstar architect, Frank Gehry. In 2008, Weatherhead co-authored a book, The Power of Adversity: Tough Times Can Make You Stronger, Wiser, and Better.
It took me seven years to write my book.
I was contemplating at 2 or 3 one morning, Do I really want to write this book? I don’t think I really want the rest of the world to know what a shit I am.
What is the purpose of the book? Well, it’s to help people. I thought, Nobody in California or for that matter in Indiana knows who you are. So just go ahead and write it. And that’s what happened.
If you look there in the book, it says that I’m a drunk. My editor said, “Are you sure you really want to say that?” And I said, “Well, it’s the truth, so why not say it?”
My mother used to tease Dad about being like Napoleon. He was the king of all he saw. He didn’t want to share power with his son. As I look back on it now with humor, I can see that.
Not following in Dad’s footsteps was the greatest put-down that ever happened in my life, and then it became the happiest happenstance because I had to get up off my own two feet and build my own company from scratch.
On Columbus Day 1966, I went to my first AA meeting. I’m a binge drinker. I could go for nine months without a drink, but I’d look into my pocket calendar, and I’d say, Gee, isn’t this nice, on April 21 next year, that whole week I don’t have a single thing to do. So my subconscious mind would start planning it. And regardless of what went on with the world, on April 21, off comes the bottle cork, and I’d get drunk for four or five days.
I’ve been sober 43 years. I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today if I kept carrying on the way I was.
Glidden asked us if we could do something in the nature of a one-piece closure. The first mold was $183,000. We said, “God, that’s a lot of money. Are we crazy?” We had no market research. We sat there and said, “Oh, what are we going to do? I don’t think we better. I don’t know about this.” Finally we said, “Oh the hell with it, let’s try. We don’t know if we don’t try.”
If I’m right 70 percent of the time, I’m doing a pretty good job.
One year, early on, we had a 40 percent drop in our business. I’d be spending all kinds of time at the plant from 2 or 3 in the morning to 8 or 9 at night thinking, How am I’m gonna get through this? I’d go out on the floor and talk to the old-timers. They’d say, “Oh, don’t get terribly excited, Mr. Weatherhead. It’ll come back. We’re a good company. We’re good people. We work hard, and we’ve got good products.” I said, “I don’t know.” “Well, just be patient; things will work out.” So four or five months later we came back, and we’ve been going along very strongly ever since.
Philanthropy is the giving of yourself to something that’s so important you want to be involved in a decade-by-decade basis. You can barely contain yourself; it’s so exciting.
I was playing golf with Dr. Agnar Pytte [then-president of Case Western Reserve University]. I said, “What is your outlook for this new Frank Gehry building?” He said, “That’s your school and your problem, and I expect you to solve it.”
I thought, Holy smokes, you might as well hit me over the head with a baseball bat. But in retrospect, I think if we’d had any interference, it would have never gotten built. The staff and the school and the trustees, they were all against it.