BY DEE THOMPSON
Great ideas often become thriving businesses, but statistically speaking, more than 90% of startups fail within a few years. The reasons are many, but it is interesting to note that sometimes it is simply not the right time to introduce a new idea. Such was the case for J. Walter Becker, a Chicago-area Ford salesman who was the consummate new-idea guy. In 1910, at a time when people in small towns and rural areas could barely afford one automobile, much less a truck for delivering farm goods or merchandise, Becker came up with a conversion kit that would essentially allow people to convert a Model T truck into a regular Ford touring car.
Becker’s auto conversion idea might have caught on had Ford not instituted mass production of the Model T, driving down the unit cost to the point most people could afford to buy both an automobile for family use and a truck for business use.
Becker, a born entrepreneur, was undeterred. His next big idea did become a success, resulting in a company that has thrived for a hundred years. The percentage of companies that last that long is phenomenally low, so don’t ask.
Becker founded IDEAL Industries in 1916 with an industrial product called the “commutator dresser” which he first developed in his mother’s kitchen. Commutators convey electrical current to the conductors in an electrical motor. While a necessary component, commutators posed a vexing maintenance problem for engineers because copper leaf or gauze brushes on early motors were constantly sparking from uneven wear and tear, creating the need for constant servicing. The later invention of brushes made of carbon failed to solve the maintenance issues. With help from William J. Catlin, Becker developed a stone with 50% efficiency. It wasn’t perfect, but it cut faster, did not clog, and lasted longer than previous products.
The timing was ideal (pun intended) for Becker’s new product, as electrical motors for industrial use were rapidly becoming a staple in manufacturing operations. Today, IDEAL Industries is celebrating its 100-year anniversary, but the company still maintains J. Walter Becker’s entrepreneurial spirit by developing new products and improving existing ones, expanding its product lines and marketing to customers worldwide.