Henry John Kaiser

Henry John Kaiser (1882-1967), American industrialist, was the driving force behind the expansion of his small construction firm into an industrial corporation with assets exceeding $2.7 billion.

Henry J. Kaiser was born on May 9, 1882, in Sprout Brook, N.Y. He left school at the age of 13 to work, and in 1906 he moved to the West Coast. Sales jobs led him into the construction business, and in 1914 he formed a road-paving firm, which pioneered in the use of heavy construction machinery. His boundless energy, imagination, and optimism were reflected in his company's reputation for speed, efficiency, and economy.

In 1927 a $20-million Cuban road-building contract helped forge the expansion of Kaiser's firm. Four years later he joined with several other large contractors to build the Hoover, Bonneville, and Grand Coulee dams; he also expanded into sand and gravel and cement production. When the United States entered World War II, he decided to apply his company's construction skills to shipbuilding. By 1945 the company had built 1,490 vessels, establishing new records for speed. During this period Kaiser built the first integrated steel plant on the West Coast, a factory which supplied material for his wartime manufacturing.

In 1944 Kaiser began looking forward to the postwar period. He predicted needs for housing, medical care, and transportation and began working to fill them. He expanded his cement and steel operations; began manufacturing aluminum, gypsum, and appliances and other household products; and built 10,000 houses. His most ambitious project, undertaken with Joseph W. Frazer, was the manufacture of automobiles, which Kaiser approached with his customary boldness and imagination. However, postwar and Korean War shortages, under-capitalization, and the disadvantages of being a new entrant in the automotive industry caused his company's failure. It sustained a $111,188,000 loss, although the Kaiser Jeep division survived.

One of Kaiser's proudest achievements of this period was his medical care plan, begun for employees in 1942 and made public in 1945. This became the largest privately sponsored health plan in the world.

In 1954 Kaiser began a new building project in Hawaii, after a visit there had revealed great opportunities for his undiminished desire to build. From that time on he left the day-to-day control of the rest of his enterprises to his son. Kaiser himself remained in the islands, supervising the construction of a hotel, hospitals, plants, housing developments, and a $350,000,000 "dream" city called Hawaii Kai. He died in Honolulu on Aug. 24, 1967, at the age of 85.


Further Reading on Henry John Kaiser

The Kaiser Story, published by Kaiser Industries Corporation in 1968, offers a fairly detailed, if nonanalytic, account of his career and the growth and development of his companies.

Additional Biography Sources

Foster, Mark S., Henry J. Kaiser: builder in the modern American West, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Heiner, Albert P., Henry J. Kaiser, American empire builder: an insider's view, New York: P. Lang, 1989.