"A man born to command, yet who never issued orders." This phrase sums up the leadership qualities of Charles A. Coffin, General Electric's first president. His executive skills helped establish GE's place in the front rank of American corporations.
Electrical manufacturing was Coffin's second career. At 18, he moved from Fairfield, Maine, where he had been born in 1844, to enter his uncle's shoe business at Lynn, Massachusetts. He later founded his own shoe manufacturing firm, and by 1883 had established himself as an outstanding success in this line.
In that year, Silas A. Barton, a Lynn businessman, proposed bringing to the city the struggling young American Electric Co. of New Britain, Connecticut, whose major asset was the inventive genius of Elihu Thomson. A businessman was needed to supplement Thomson's technical skills. Coffin was prevailed upon to take the post.
He led the new company, Thomson-Houston, to parity with Thomas Edison's companies, the previous leaders in the field. When negotiations in 1892 led to the formation of General Electric, a key step in creating a viable enterprise was the installation of Coffin as its first chief executive officer.
Coffin's associates (and he always made a point of calling them "my associates," not "my subordinates") knew him as a gracious gentleman and delightful companion. He never ordered one of them to do anything, preferring to rely on his powers of suggestion. In his turn, he graciously sought and welcomed suggestions from those around him and then decisively made up his own mind on key questions.
Customers and competitors knew him as both the outstanding statesman and the outstanding salesman of the electrical manufacturing industry. He took a personal interest in major negotiations, often writing business proposals to important customers in his own hand. At tense meetings, he knew how to relieve the pressure with an appropriate anecdote, and how to add the key words to bring matters to a successful conclusion.
His greatest test came in the depression of 1893. A cash shortage threatened GE's existence. He coolly negotiated a deal with J. P. Morgan whereby New York banks advanced the needed money as payment for utility stocks that GE held. The tactic saved the company and made possible its rapid recovery and growth during the remainder of his tenure. The strength and wide-ranging excellence of the company he passed on to Owen D. Young and Gerard Swope when he retired from the board chairmanship in 1922 was and remains his greatest monument.